A Catholic step-grandmother and the Jewish triplets she adopted are the protagonists of a story that transcends faith, generations and community.
If Mary Brodsky had merely adopted her triplet step-grandchildren after her husband and both of the children’s parents died — dayenu.
If she had simply kept them grounded in the centuries-old religion of their mother and their grandfather — dayenu.
If the Catholic widow had taught herself enough about Judaism to organize a seder every year, complete with homemade gefilte fish, and to read the children a chapter from My Little Dreidel on each of the eight nights of Chanukah — dayenu.
If she had dropped the siblings off at Hebrew school every Sunday for years, and then driven three miles down the road to attend mass at St. Francis in Fairless Hills — dayenu.
But there’s more, much more, in this saga of a faith that unites two religions, three generations and four people whose love for Judaism—and for one another — transcends blood ties.
It stars 12-year-old Madison, Zoe and Jonathan Kemp, who are prepping for their Bar/Bat Mitzvah later this month at Congregation Beth El in Yardley. It also stars the woman they call Mom-Mom: Mary Brodsky, widow of their maternal grandfather Jack Brodsky, who is raising the youngsters as Jews and making sure they get a proper Jewish education.
“We read in Proverbs about a woman of valor,” says Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg, religious leader of Beth El. “I think it might have been written for Mary.”
The triplets’ father, Andrew Kemp, died in 2006 during a stay in the hospital for a ruptured colon. Their mother, Helena Brodsky Kemp, died two years later of an aortic aneurysm, a bulge in the section of the body’s main artery that can burst and cause major bleeding.
Shortly before Helena’s death, Mary Brodsky had been holding conversations with the entity she calls “The Big Guy.” Feeling lonely and at loose ends three years after her husband passed away, she spoke to God from behind the wheel of her car, confiding in him, “I need a purpose in life.”
Later, when their newly orphaned status found Madison, Zoe and Jonathan in her care, Brodsky had one rueful thought: “I really should be careful what I wish for.”
The triplets were 5. Mary Brodsky, a retired middle manager for the IRS, was about to become a first-time mother in her early 60s.
It wouldn’t be easy — she knew that. Zoe was born with short heel cords and was in leg braces for many years. Jonathan, diagnosed early on with cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair.
But although Helena had a sister living in London who offered to take her nieces and nephew, Brodsky was determined to keep them in the home in which they’d grown up, observing the religion on which they’d been nurtured.
Before she died, Helena Kemp compiled a list she called “Eight Things I’m Passionate About”: “HaShem, Madison, Zoe, Jonathan, Judaism, My Family, Learning, Tikkun Olam — healing the world, or at least my little corner of it.”
“Their mother taught them the Shema before they went to nursery school — they said it every night,” Brodsky recalls. “One of the reasons I kept the children is that my husband would have wanted them to be raised Jewish.”
And Jewish they most definitely are.
Reclining in his bed, flanked by his sisters and a stuffed Minion doll from the movie Despicable Me he’s dubbed “Rabbi,” Jonathan Kemp is holding court.
He’s the baby of the threesome, temporarily sidelined while recovering from hip-repair surgery less than five weeks earlier — two months before the Big Day. He’s explaining why it’s so important to him to mount the bimah at Beth El to chant his share of Haftorah accompanying the Tazriah Metzorah Torah portion, the passages he’s been learning for the past three-quarters of a year.
“Having a sense of being Jewish, that culture passed on to me by my mom, has made me a better person,” Jonathan says, shifting slightly to get comfortable in the cast that encases his lower body from chest to foot.
“I want to pass that along to my kids someday. Being Jewish, to me, has changed my life around.”
Each of the Kemp children will recite a third of the Haftorah that Saturday morning, April 25. For Zoe, the highlight of the ceremony will be the sense of accomplishment she expects to feel for sticking it out over the months and years; for Madison, it’s the feeling of having proven herself up to the task.
“There’s also the aspect of having a Jewish community around us — that’s what makes you feel more connected to God,” Zoe adds.
The seventh-graders at William Penn Middle School have also signed on for a B’nai Mitzvah project suggested by Beth El education director Karen Lewin: collecting toiletries and writing letters to Lone Soldiers, the young men and women from throughout the world who travel to Israel to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, leaving behind family, friends and loved ones.
The Bucks County synagogue has a personal connection to the project, Lewin notes: Elisa Mindlin, who has taught at Beth El over the years, is the sister of Michael Levin, a Lone Soldier who made aliyah from Holland in 2002, and who died in battle in Lebanon in 2006.
But for now, Jonathan brings the talk back to the upcoming festivities.
“Standing in front of hundreds of people, I’m going to feel like I’m the last man on Earth. It’s amazing to know how I’ve worked my butt off for this,” the newly minted teenager says, looking around at the adults at his bedside to make sure he’s allowed to use that word in polite company.
Rabbi Gruenberg nods. Laughs. Then he notes that the Kemps’ B’nai Mitzvah has blossomed into a community-wide celebration, a feel-good event that has touched many of the 318 families in the Conservative congregation.
“They’ve watched the kids grow up, and this is a family that serves as a great inspiration to us. It reminds us what the important things in life are,” says Gruenberg, whose tenure at the Bucks County synagogue has included officiating at the B’nai Mitzvah of another set of triplets two years ago.
“I think I’m leading America in terms of triplets being Bar Mitzvahed,” the rabbi quips.
Even before Helena Kemp died, the family was active in Beth El life, Lewin remembers; the children were about 4 or 5 when she joined. Since then, administrators and members of the congregation have embraced Zoe, Madison and Jonathan as their own.
It was Lewin who helped design the Bar/Bat Mitzvah invitation that has each of the triplet’s smiling faces on the cover, which members of the synagogue’s USY chapter stuffed into envelopes at 3 a.m. on an early March Sunday morning during a weekend sleepover.
It was his fellow students who sent Jonathan “Rabbi,” the jaunty yellow Minion doll sporting a turquoise kipah and the scrawled signatures of his pals, and it was their parents who delivered home-cooked meals to the home in the immediate aftermath of his surgery so his Mom-Mom could attend to his other needs.
Many of the congregants will crowd into Beth El’s sanctuary next month when the triplets mark their formal passage into Jewish adulthood.
Brodsky, who acknowledges that her grasp of Hebrew isn’t stellar, will recite the Shehecheyanu prayer three times — once for each celebrant — thanking God for allowing them all to reach this day.
She’ll be thinking of her late husband that day, and how pleased he’d be that another generation of Jews had been successfully launched. She’ll be marveling over how the congregation has so generously adopted her family, much as she had adopted Zoe, Madison and Jonathan.
But mostly, she says, she’ll be hoping that the months of training provide a solid grounding as the triplets chant on the bimah that morning.
“If they get through their Torah portions, I will be the proudest person in that room,” Mary Brodsky says quietly. “They have been studying so hard — I will be holding my breath the whole time.”
This piece was part of the Spring Simchas, a special section of the Jewish Exponent. Fredda Sacharow is a frequent contributor to Special Sections.