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Leona Billinkoff

Elliot Leven: Leona Billinkoff Remembered-The Eemah of Camp Massad

By Elliot Leven, February 8, 2014

She was an original.  No one who ever met Leona Billinkoff could deny that.  Born Leona Wagner in 1920, she passed away on January 30, 2014. Leona was best known as “Gveret B” the long-time “Eemah” or camp-mother of Camp Massad.


I met Gveret B when I was a camper and counsellor at Massad during the 1970s. I got to know her better when I was camp president during the 1990s.  I would take her out to lunch and she would amuse and entertain me with funny and colourful stories about Massad and about her life. She loved the goat curry at the Clay Oven. We became true friends.


Gveret B was always a passionate Zionist.  She could remember a time when many Winnipeg Jewish community leaders were not yet Zionists. It is hard to believe today. But Leona’s commitment to a Jewish State in Israel began early.


Leona and her late husband Alec took their kids and visited Israel in 1954. In those days, no Winnipeg Jews went to Israel as tourists.  Leona fell in love with the country.


She told me the story of how she visited Eilat. Now a major tourist attraction, Eilat was then a tiny town on the Red Sea. Leona and Alec asked the locals where the nightlife was. They were directed to a “nightclub” called “Sof Ha’olam” (“The End of the World”).  The nightclub consisted of a bare room, with a single light bulb, and a local singer playing acoustic guitar. Leona and Alec sat on the floor with the locals and enjoyed an evening of Israeli music.


Of course, there was Machaneh Massad.  Although Leona is often called a “founder” of the camp, her actual role in the summer of 1953 was limited and, not surprisingly, the subject of a funny anecdote. The camp’s first program director – Eddy Yuditsky – thought it would be a good idea if the camp had an “Eemah” to comfort home-sick campers and such.  He knew Leona through the Talmud Torah (where she had been PTA president) and thought she would be perfect.  So he asked her to come to Massad to be the first camp-mother. He described it as being like a vacation. The rest is history.


Leona fell in love with Massad. Dragging Alec along for the wild ride, she made it her mission to build, strengthen and nourish the impoverished little camp.  She was officially the camp administrator. But, between 1954 and 1978, Leona and Alec were Camp Massad.


Along with obvious tasks like fundraising, running an office, building buildings, hiring staff and recruiting campers, Gveret B influenced Massad in subtle ways.  She loved to describe Massad as a place where every little boy learned to dance and every little girl learned to use a hammer.  She also described it as place where being a mensh was the highest priority.


Leona Billinkoff is not usually described as being a feminist leader but, in essence, she was.  In her day, she attended university, which was unusual for women in general and Winnipeg Jewish women in particular. In addition to everything else at Massad, she was running a substantial business. That too was unusual for women of her era.  And in an era where the Winnipeg Jewish community confined women to “ladies auxiliaries” and synagogue sisterhoods, Gveret B was exercising real power.


I loved Leona’s feisty sense of humor. One of the many funny stories she told me was the tale of the rainy night at Winnipeg Beach. Billinkoff Lumber, under Alec’s supervision, had built the camp oolam (auditorium).  It was raining hard and the campers were dancing in the oolam. A neurotic parent with a cottage at Winnipeg Beach phoned and told Leona that he was worried about the storm. She told him that the kids were dancing safely in the oolam. He replied that he wanted to drive to Massad, pick up his child, and keep the child in his beach cottage until the storm was over. Leona, who has been biting her tongue, could stand no more: “listen, Mr. x, my husband built that oolam, and I can assure you it is better built than your little cottage!”


Leona was not shy.


Later in life, Leona became an original and talented artist. She was a devoted wife, mother, grandmother, sister, and aunt .  And a true friend.


Until 2010, I would drive her out to Massad every summer while the campers were present, so she could see her legacy in action. After that, her illness set in, and the visits were sadly over. We missed her profoundly at the 2012 alumni reunion.


Her final illness was cruel and left her unable to communicate lucidly. But I will try to forget the last years.  Instead, I will remember Gveret B in the dining hall at Massad, surrounded by campers, laughing and beaming with delight.


From all Massad alumni, and all your many friends, shalom Gveret B, and thank you. Todah rabah!





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