WINNIPEG — Leona Billinkoff said she was “overwhelmed.” “I didn’t expect so many Camp Massad alumni,” she said.
Leona Billinkoff at her 90th birthday party.
The occasion, on Feb. 28, was a celebration of Billinkoff’s 90th birthday, organized by the board of directors of Camp Massad, the Hebrew-language summer camp that Billinkoff headed for 26 years.
And a typical Massad celebration it was. The event, which was held at the Gwen Secter Creative Living Centre, began with camp songs sung by the Massad alumni choir, with many of the other 70 or so guests joining in.
That was followed by a skit based on awards shows such as the Oscars and Emmys. This version was called the “Eemahs,” the title by which the Camp Massad administrators are traditionally known. One of the highlights was a song by Toronto-based entertainer David Gale, a Massad alumnus. He sang a parody of I Am Reviewing the Situation from the musical Oliver! describing his memories of Massad.
At the end, Billinkoff was presented with a lifetime Eemah Award.
“Without Mrs. B, there wouldn’t have been a Camp Massad,” says alumnus Elliott Leven, who has remained a close friend of Billinkoff over the years.
Leven first got to know the renowned camp eemah when he signed on as a camper in 1973. He later worked with her as a counsellor. “We became friends when I served as president of the board,” he said. “I looked to Leona for advice on numerous occasions. We are still friends and she still gives good advice.”
Massad is a Jewish camp unlike any other. Not only is it a Hebrew immersion experience for the campers, but also there has always been an emphasis on art, dance and culture, as well as traditional camping activities. In part, that is a reflection of the leadership of Billinkoff, who is an artist and craftsperson.
The camp is located just north of Winnipeg Beach, which is a 45-minute drive northwest of Winnipeg and has long been a popular summer resort for Jewish Winnipeggers. Camp Massad grew out a Labour Zionist-oriented summer camp.
According to historian Allan Levine in his Coming of Age: A History of the Jewish People of Manitoba, in 1952, most of the young Habonim counsellors were planning on making aliyah. One of the group, Soody Kleiman, thought it fitting if the camp site was used for a Hebrew-speaking camp. He and some friends lobbied leaders of Keren Hatarbut and Winnipeg’s Labour Zionist movement and convinced them to support a kosher, Hebrew-speaking camp on the site.
Kleiman became the first senior counsellor responsible for programming.
Billinkoff, at that time, was a young mother of three children and a volunteer with the Talmud Torah school. Rabbi Avraham Kravetz, the school’s principal, promoted the new camp among the school’s students. Ed Yuditsky, a former Talmud Torah teacher, was hired as the camp director. Billinkoff was persuaded to become the first administrator, or eemah.
“My time as eemah at Camp Massad was a wonderful experience,” she said. “It changed my life.
“My brother has just died. I had been working hard. It was suggested that Camp Massad was a place where I could get some rest. As soon as I got there and saw how much there was to do, I got right down to work.”
She added she had always enjoyed working with children. Camp Massad, she told Levine, was a place where little boys could learn to dance and little girls to hammer nails. It was a place where everyone would sing and appear on stage. The emphasis was on menschlichkeit.
The camp site was relatively primitive at the beginning. Billinkoff’s husband, Alex, who was a partner in the family lumber business, contributed largely to the physical development of the camp over the years.
Billinkoff says that she never had a particular plan or philosophy for the camp. “I learned from Soody Kleiman [who attended Billinkoff’s 90th birthday celebration] and the other camp directors,” she says.
“It was Soody, for example, who taught me a love for Israel. He and the other Habonim people had a special attitude. They were so creative. Camp Massad was just what I needed at that time in my life.”
Billinkoff said that her goal during her time at Massad was to keep the camp going in the teeth of opposition from the Jewish community leadership, who favoured the longer-running B’nai Brith camp.
“No one in the first few years was prepared to help us, not even the Zionist organizations,” she recalled. “I was stubborn. I spent a lot of time fighting for the camp.”
She says she decided to retire once a core of Massad alumni were prepared to take over the running of the camp.
Camp Massad has a brand new eemah for this year. Regina Teplitsky, a recent arrival from Israel, took charge of the camp at the beginning of this year. She reported that so far more than 100 children are registered for camp this summer.
While most of the campers are from Winnipeg, the camp also attracts children from other parts of Canada and the United States, she said.