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Mother of Camp Massad celebrates 90 years

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On the last Sunday of February, about 100 people gathered at the Gwen Secter Creative Living Centre in West Kildonan to celebrate the 90th birthday of one of the matriarchs of Winnipeg's Jewish community. In her long life, Leona Billinkoff has been recognized for many achievements -- as an accomplished artist, as a community volunteer, as a PTA dynamo, as an outspoken advocate, and, most significantly, as the Eemah, or Mother, of Camp Massad.

Camp Massad is a Hebrew-speaking, Jewish residential summer camp located just outside of Winnipeg Beach. Since its founding almost 60 years ago, thousands of Jewish youth have experienced what is commonly referred to as the magic of Massad. Many of the Winnipeg Jewish community's established and upcoming leaders are Massad alumni, products of a summer paradise that imbues in them an unparalleled sense of pride in their Jewish faith, heritage and community.

Jewish summer camps have long been recognized as one of the most influential factors in creating a positive sense of identity among Jewish youth. In fact, recent studies have indicated that those who attend Jewish summer camp as children are 50 per cent more likely to remain connected to their community as adults. This has certainly held true for those who have attended Massad.

Massad was founded in 1953 by members of Habonim, a local Zionist youth group determined to foster a link between Diaspora Jewry and the fledgling Jewish State of Israel. At the time, Billinkoff was the busy PTA chair of the Winnipeg Hebrew School. When the school's principal was hired as Massad's first program director, he asked Billinkoff if she would help him out at the camp for the summer. Billinkoff agreed. She came for the summer and stayed for 27 years.

At Massad, Billinkoff, who was known as Gveret or Mrs. B, wore a variety of hats, promoting the camp in the off-season, supporting the camp financially, nurturing creativity, counselling homesick kids, and instilling in all campers, most of them from the Winnipeg area, pride in being Jewish. Much of the success of Massad, which remains as vibrant today as it was half a century ago, is the result of Gveret B's determination and devotion to the idea of a Hebrew-speaking Jewish camp in the middle of the Canadian Prairies.

"Leona Billinkoff's role was important not only because she was the longest attending camp Eemah, but because she had a vision for Camp Massad that endured over the years," explained Ivy Kopstein, co-chair of the Massad board of directors.

"Under Mrs. B's leadership, Camp Massad flourished."

Decades later, many of those who were privileged to attend Massad under Billinkoff's watch remain involved with the camp as volunteers and members of the board of directors. It was only natural for them then to want to publicly recognize their Eemah on her milestone birthday and to do so in true Massad fashion.

This meant a birthday celebration replete with shtick and songs and entertainment by the Camp Massad Alumni Choir. This choir is itself a testament to what Billinkoff created at Massad. Members of the choir are mostly former Massad staff alumni, men and women now in their 40s and 50s who gladly gather several times a year at Jewish community and rite-of-passage events to sing prayers and songs in Hebrew. They are the proof that Jewish camp keeps people connected to the Jewish community.

"Gveret B was onto something," said choir director Miriam Baron.

"She made sure that people got in touch with who they were and what is important."

Back in 1953, what was important was that Jewish children be given the opportunity to get together in a fun atmosphere and to creatively express pride in their identity. Many years later, this is no less important. Fortunately, it is still what Camp Massad does best, to the benefit of the entire Jewish community.

schisvin@hotmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 6, 2010 H13

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