The Tante: Rebbetzin Sora Ita Katz a“h

There’s something about a tante. She is neither mother nor sister. A tante can tell you things that you need to hear without sounding overbearing. She shares important advice and follows up with yummy cakes and treats. She’s easy to shmooze with, accepting of everyone, never judgmental.

This was the role of Tante Sora Ita Katz, whose role as our family tante predated my birth. Already by then, she had developed a close bond with my mother and father, as well as their parents, whom she had known for many decades.

Her husband, Rav Chaim Tzvi Katz, used to come to the yahrtzeit seudah held in honor of my grandfather, Mr. Chaim Isaac Spero, each year on Rosh Chodesh Av. He felt a special connection to my grandfather, who was influential in sending him to yeshiva. The story goes that Chaim Isaac saw the teenaged young man, Chaim Tzvi, davening Minchah one day and was so impressed that he insisted, “This boy must go to Telshe.”

And so he did.

I was privileged to eat with my brothers at the Katz home every year on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. It was during those seudos that Rav Chaim Tzvi taught us about our grandparents. As the baal Shacharis in yeshiva, Rav Chaim Tzvi was infused with spirituality, riding the high of the Telzer davening. But the meal was about us, on our level. The Katzes clearly felt a special bond with us.

How lucky we felt.

I also know that our family reciprocated that love. Recently, I came across a kvittel written by my zeidy, Rav Yehudah Moses, in which he listed the names of all of his children and grandchildren at the time. On the bottom, after his family, were listed the Katz mishpacha members. For my bubby and zeidy, who had lost their entire families in the war, Rav Chaim Tzvi and Tante Sora Ita were just that: family.

Hence, Tante Sora Ita.

But she was not only our tante; she was everyone’s tante. Her hundreds of talmidos felt it, as did the numerous baalei teshuvah whom she nurtured and brought closer to Yiddishkeit. Yeshiva bochurim turned to her for advice and she did her utmost to marry many of them off, often sending them to her only brother, Rav Dovid Helberg, in Brooklyn, who infused them with good old-fashioned Helberg warmth and love. She advised and coached, nurtured and doted, and decades later, the feelings are still fresh in the hearts and souls of the thousands of lives she touched.

Tante Sora Ita was not shy. If something had to be said, she wasn’t afraid to say it. A number of times, she gave me gentle mussar. As a kid, I laughed it off. But she would repeat it and urge me to take it seriously. She would ask me months later about her suggestions, always hoping that I would yet implement what she urged me to do. With her ayin tovah, she saw the good in others and realized their capabilities.

In many ways, she was the bridge from the Telzer rebbetzins, who considered her very much their peer, to the younger rabbeim’s wives, with whom she shared her incomparable recipes and wisdom; they related to her and admired the American-born girl who had climbed the ladder of ruchniyus to unimaginable heights.

Yes, unimaginable.

Sora Ita came from a home where Torah stood paramount. Her parents, Reb Avrohom Avigdor and Zissel, fought against the tide and instilled that passion for Yiddishkeit within their children. They stood up for kashrus, battled for Shabbos, and dreamt that their children would follow in their path.

Their children would not disappoint. Their son, Rav Dovid, would go on to become a rebbi, a rov, and a loving spiritual guide to many.

And his dear sister, Sora Ita…

Emblazoned with the mission of preserving the mesorah, she was willing to do whatever necessary to save Yidden. Physically. And spiritually.

When Sora Ita was 16, she and a friend took a Greyhound bus to Cleveland to speak to the roshei yeshiva about sponsoring Yidden who survived the war and bringing them to America.

And she also wanted to teach Yidden and help them grow. All of them.

In 1951, when Sora Ita was about 18 years old, David Ben Gurion came to Chicago. Along with others, she stood and watched the bareheaded Israeli leader. But Sora Ita didn’t just watch. She took action. She removed the extra yarmulka she always carried with her — in case someone needed one — from her pocket and threw it toward Ben Gurion, who caught it and placed it on his head.

Yes, she was filled with passion. But she needed a mate who shared that passion, who was willing to live the dream. Kollel life was virtually unheard of back then. Going into chinuch? There were almost no schools; who was there to teach?

But a fire burned inside of Sora Ita. She wanted this kind of life and this kind of husband more than anything.

Her brother, Rav Dovid, a tzaddik of a Yid, with whom she always shared a very special bond, recommended Chaim Tzvi Katz, someone with whom she could share her vision of saving Klal Yisroel.

They would do it together. With humility and warmth. Love and affection. The truth of Torah would speak for them.

They would work on one neshomah at a time. Each one precious. Each one worth teaching. Each one worth saving.

Bnei Torah. Bnos Yisroel. And especially those who had yet to perceive the beauty of Yiddishkeit. She would show it to them. With love and passion. With patience and perseverance.

As she davened for each of her talmidos by name, she encouraged other rabbeim and moros to do the same for their talmidim. She promised it was a worthwhile investment. She knew this well, for it was something she had done her entire life. No wonder Rav Elya Meir Bloch, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Telshe, proclaimed on numerous occasions that the city of Cleveland stands on Rebbetzin Sora Ita’s zechuyos.

And he said this over 60 years ago, when she was only in her 20’s, when she was married only a few years. She started back then and she did not stop.

A virtual institution of chesed, she scoured the names of the patients in the hospital receiving kosher food and went there to visit them. She provided for them, nourishing their bodies, feeding their souls.

Every morning, she traveled with her colleagues, who were closer to her than sisters — Rebbetzin Shoshana Gifter (wife of Rav Mordechai) and Rebbetzin Naomi Stein (wife of Rav Pesach) — to teach in YABI, Yeshivath Adath B’nai Israel, where they inspired generations of students. Recently, she humbly calculated over 500 spiritual kinderlach, Jewish souls she had saved. This count included a pony-tailed young man she met in the hospital, to whom she reached out and never gave up on. Today, that young man is a talmid chochom muflag, a rebbi, and one of Rebbetzin Sora Ita’s spiritual children, who feel eternally indebted to her. He recently married off his child and Rebbetzin Sora Ita participated by Skyping from her deathbed. She wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Years ago, Marc, a secular high school senior, asked to do his senior high school project by spending a Shabbos in Telshe Yeshiva. As a talmid in the yeshiva at the time, I was given the privilege of hosting him for the weekend. We created a spectacular itinerary, including enjoyable meals, inspiring sessions, and, of course, a meeting with Rav Chaim Tzvi. I sat with him in the bais medrash as Rav Chaim Tzvi spoke to Marc and told him that he himself had attended public school in Canton, Ohio. Looking at the pious rabbi with a white beard, Marc was shocked. Rav Chaim Tzvi then shared with him his journey and I was privy to hear it all. After he finished, Marc had one more question. He looked up toward the ezras noshim and wondered, “Don’t the women feel like second-class citizens sitting in the balcony?”

Rav Chaim Tzvi explained that davening separately allows opposite genders to focus on their prayers instead of each other. “And regarding how we view the women, I view my wife as a queen — and a queen does not sit among the commoners. She sits above them.”

Yes, Rav Chaim Tzvi, we all viewed Tante Sora Ita that way.

Like a queen.

Indeed, she was.

Caring for her people, defending their honor, and providing for their needs.

Whenever I ate at the Katz home, I tried to get there early. As a friend of Moshe (or Isaac Moish, as his father called him), I would eat there a few times a year, not just on Rosh Hashanah. While Rav Chaim Tzvi was holy, Tante Sora Ita made his sanctity relatable. Equally sacrosanct, she cushioned his heilige hanhagos, explained them, and encouraged us to incorporate some of them into our own lives. 

And she shmoozed. But her plain talk was always laced with meaning. She made holiness relatable. Accessible. Doable.

Rebbetzin Sora Ita and her husband lived the dream. Stationed in Telshe for nearly 60 years, they spread Torah to the world from their humble home on Bishop Road.

About 22 years ago, Rav Chaim Tzvi left This World. And now, Tante Sora Ita has joined him. She will sit in the balcony, no doubt overseeing her children.

The tante’s work on This World is now complete.

But now, more than ever, we need her tefillos. We need not worry, for she won’t stop pleading; she won’t ever give up….

Oy, what a loss.

Some people are truly irreplaceable.

The tante is one of them.

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Request from the Katz family: If anyone has stories and/or memories of Rebbetzin Katz, please email them to mkatz@torahlinks.org.