Catholic AJA Teacher’s Kiruv Brings Survivor Back

Catholic AJA Teacher’s Kiruv Brings Survivor Back

Senior Maayan Schoen shares the story of Catherine Brand and a Holocaust survivor in New Mexico.

Maayan Schoen

Maayan Schoen is a senior at Atlanta Jewish Academy.

When Chanukah and Christmas overlapped in 2016, it proved to be a blessed event, in part because of Catherine Brand's baking.
When Chanukah and Christmas overlapped in 2016, it proved to be a blessed event, in part because of Catherine Brand's baking.

I always knew our teachers were righteous, but until recently I did not know how deeply.

Kiruv (bring close) refers to efforts to bring the unaffiliated closer to their Judaism; it is most often associated with rabbis and rebbetzins and certain kinds of experiences. I feel comfortable saying kiruv has never been attributed to a devout Catholic woman. Meet Catherine Brand.

As her grandfather’s health declined, Mrs. Brand, recent Teacher of the Year and resident master of all things science and nerd (Nerd Club is a thriving part of Atlanta Jewish Academy culture), began spending more Christmases home in New Mexico.

One fateful Christmas dinner in 2015, the last one before her grandfather died, a friend of her grandfather’s, Rudy Gross, joined the mishpacha (family) for the evening. Mrs. Brand’s mother encouraged her to converse with Rudy, a Holocaust survivor; Mrs. Brand studied the Holocaust in college and taught at two Jewish day schools (Weber and AJA).

Before the meal, Mrs. Brand engaged Rudy by saying she works in a Jewish school, and the rest of the night she learned about the 95-year-old’s life in Mannheim, Germany, and flight to America.

Rudy’s Story

Raised in a culturally Jewish, relatively observant household, Rudy, a talented violin player, had a bar mitzvah and went to shul with his father on Shabbos mornings. His father earned the German Iron Cross fighting in World War I. As Hitler rose to power, Rudy’s father felt confident that the Germans would not come for dedicated citizens who were not German Jews, but Germans who were Jewish.

Rudy Gross now refers to Catherine Brand as his granddaughter.

Even so, at 14 Rudy left for St. Louis, sponsored by the St. Louis Jewish community, in the late 1930s.

Rudy and 15 to 20 other young boys arriving in America were sent to different cities; only one other accompanied him to St. Louis. Rudy received a religious culture shock, placed with a less religious family who dressed and behaved differently and did not go to shul on Shabbos.

After graduating high school during World War II, Rudy noted the desperate need of the U.S. military for people to translate German to English, and he enlisted as a foreign national, undergoing a year of vetting to verify that he was not a spy.

His Army unit was based in London; whenever the Americans captured a German town, they would fly in his team to go through documents and translate. During months of going back and forth, he didn’t know what had happened to his family.

Toward the end of the war, Rudy met and fell in love with the British woman who would become his wife for more than 50 years. He also got a telegram through the Red Cross from his younger brother, Fred, saying he was alive in France. Fred had been rescued by Quakers and hidden in a French orphanage, where he aided the Resistance.

But Fred had bad news: Their parents, Klara and Isaak, were murdered in Auschwitz.

Rudy traveled three days to embrace Fred in France and explained his plan to bring his brother to America. But Fred was approached by young Zionists about making aliyah to the land of Israel.

Fred attempted the journey by sea. He was intercepted and sent to a detention camp in Cyprus for six months but escaped and made it to Israel, where he joined the Irgun. Fred was killed on the first day of the War of Independence.

Rudy saw no need to accept Israel’s offer to visit his brother’s grave (first in Sanhedria, later moved to Har Herzl). “It’s just death, it’s just loss, and there’s nothing there for me,” he said.

He repeated several times, “We were supposed to have a life together.”

Spiritual Intuition

As Mrs. Brand delved deeper into Rudy’s story, her fascination transitioned from historical sympathy to spiritual connection. She felt the need to take care of his family. Consulting with AJA’s Rabbi Daniel Estreicher, she had her mother in New Mexico collect the necessary information about Rudy’s parents and brother for Rabbi E to say Kaddish: names, birthdays and the single known death date.

Rabbi E took on the task but made one request of Mrs. Brand: Adhere to the custom of giving charity in the merit of the dead. She picked Od Yosef Chai, Rabbi E’s preferred tzedakah.

Mrs. Brand’s thoughts returned to Rudy and went beyond offering companionship, which her parents had covered, and honoring his story, which she had done. She made Rudy’s Yiddishe neshama (Jewish soul) her personal business.

Rudy Gross and Catherine Brand light the candles together.

Her next Christmas visit to New Mexico coincided with Chanukah, a fact she felt was “orchestrated by Hashem” (her words). She presented a grand Chanukah intervention plan to three AJA rabbis; all gave her the go-ahead.

I can only imagine what they thought about her idea. Mrs. Brand planned to bring the complete Chanukah experience to Rudy, including Hebrew blessings, candle lighting and her own dreidel-Chanukah-cookie extravaganza. When she told me, I thought, “I am sitting across from one of the greatest kiruv rebbetzins of our time, and she’s … Catholic.”

Rabbi Reuven Travis offered a chanukiah. Rabbi E printed the blessings in Hebrew, transliterated Hebrew and English. Former AJA student Ezra Blaut gathered the candles, and the whole Blaut clan helped her practice fluency with the words. Her mother checked a New Mexico Walmart for dreidels, Chanukah cookie cutters and chocolate gelt and invited Rudy.

Elbow-deep in sugar with one day left to enact her kiruv mission, Mrs. Brand paused to view her dozens of Christmas and Chanukah cookies cooling on the counter.

“I’m bringing Chanukah to a Jewish man who has lost it, and I’m going to connect him to it!” she yelled.

That exclamation reminded her mother of the Chanukah books she had gathered while teaching Catholic first-graders about different religions and their celebrations. She ran to collect them from another room.

Plan in Action

Christmas dinner and the second night of Chanukah came. Mrs. Brand launched her assault. “Rudy, it’s the second night of Chanukah! And we’re gonna do it!”

She passed out dreidel-shaped cookies as she set up the candles. She lighted the helper candle, the shamash, and said the prayer for Rudy. He lighted the two candles. He was delighted with the whole affair and took some gelt home, but he was not talkative. Mrs. Brand couldn’t tell what he made of the situation.

Mrs. Brand lighted candles without Rudy every night after sunset, hoping he would return. On the fifth night of Chanukah, Rudy joined her family again, and he stopped her in the middle of the blessing. “I remember this,” he said. “I remember these prayers. That’s the same beginning as the prayer for Shabbos.”

Rudy Gross joins Catherine Brand and her parents for an interfaith holiday celebration in New Mexico.

Ever the kiruv rebbetzin, Mrs. Brand thought, “Hey, I can do a fair impression of the Shabbos Kiddush too.”

Rudy was all smiles. He told Mrs. Brand how much he enjoyed their celebration. “This is so neat,” he told Mrs. Brand. “You’re such a Catholic Jewish girl.”

“Well, you’re my Jewish grandfather,” she said. He smiled, paused and let out a belly laugh.

The title sticks with Rudy, who has no children or grandchildren. He has upgraded his greeting from “Hello” to “Hey, it’s my Jewish granddaughter, who teaches at the Jewish school and knows so much about being Jewish” when he and Mrs. Brand speak on the telephone.

He can’t believe how much Mrs. Brand knows about Judaism, and he asks her mother whether it worries her. “You all are something else. You knock me out,” he tells them.

New Traditions

Chanukah in 2017 ended two days before Mrs. Brand flew home. She equipped her mother with the chanukiah and the translated blessings, but she had her eye on Shabbos as her next personal Rudy mission.

Rudy had indicated that he didn’t remember much about his day-to-day Jewish experiences with his parents, but he made the connection to Shabbos on their second night of Chanukah lighting. He even made the motion of challah braiding, remembering that his mother prepared the bread before prayers on Friday night.

Mrs. Brand was confident that the spiritual stars had again aligned.

She gathered her tools to make Kiddush on Friday night: a bencher, candles, Kedem grape juice and a great challah recipe. She considered Havdalah as well.

“He grew up in a Jewish house, and I believe that if the war hadn’t happened, he probably would have some kind of Jewish identity today, and he doesn’t,” Mrs. Brand said. “Nothing he lost was his fault, and I wanted to do something to connect him with what he lost, what he had and was a part of him, what his whole family was murdered for.”

For Mrs. Brand, faith is important and beautiful. “I believe in having faith and that it helps you and sustains you in times when nothing else can or will,” she told me. “He’s lost so much that, to me, helping him reconnect with his faith is a way for him to get something back. I can’t resurrect his parents or stop the Nazis, but maybe I can reconnect him to his faith that he lost. You don’t often in life get the opportunity to right great, transcendent wrongs that have happened to other people. Bringing Chanukah or Shabbos won’t change what happened, but spiritually, emotionally … it might fix something.”

I had to know: Why did she go to the lengths she did? Why not turn Rudy over to a Jewish organization or just bake Chanukah cookies?

“It’s what I can do, so it’s what I have to do,” she said. “His parents were murdered for their faith, which, based on Rudy’s memories, they clearly wanted to share with him. I owed it to their memory to try to bring their son closer to his faith, and I felt in a unique position to do so. It’s what I’ve been training for my whole life, in a certain sense. And if I didn’t seize this opportunity, what would be my excuse?”

Kiruv of this standard is rarely easy. It requires faith in G-d, faith in others and faith in oneself. It requires concern and attention beyond the physical realm.

Mrs. Brand is a tzadeket, a righteous and virtuous woman whose quiet but ambitious dedication to others knows no bounds, defies logic and testifies to her angelic character. How fortunate are we who learn in her presence.

Maayan Schoen is a senior at Atlanta Jewish Academy.

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