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Rachel Mordecai Lazarus was the eldest of 13 children born in Virginia. When she was three years old, the family moved to Warrenton, North Carolina, where they were the only Jews in the small town. Rachel's mother died, and she and her sister Ellen received their early education from their aunts, Judah Myers and Richea Myers, in Richmond. In 1798, their father married his late wife's half-sister, Rebecca Myers. When the family store failed, the Mordecais opened a girls’ boarding school in their home in 1809, with young Rachel Lazarus as the head teacher. The school quickly became popular, and enrolled the daughters of the region’s Protestant elite, joined by a handful of girls from southern Jewish families. At age 26, Rachel began a correspondence with novelist Maria Edgeworth. Rachel's first letter questioned Miss Edgeworth about her unkind treatment of Jewish characters in her works. Eventually, the two women became sincere friends and wrote regularly for the rest of Rachel's life. In 1821, Rachel married Aaron Lazarus, a merchant from North Carolina. She had several difficult pregnancies and her closest female friends, who nursed her through illness, were evangelical Christians. In 1835, after years of teaching and religious study, Rachel Lazarus announced her intention to convert to Christianity. Her decision set off a bitter struggle with her family. Her husband threatened to take their children away if she left Judaism. Rachel gave in, but continued to be a believing Christian in her heart. On her deathbed, at the home of her siblings Samuel and Ellen Mordecai (also a convert), Rachel Lazarus was baptized as an Episcopalian.
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