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(photo credit: YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO)
Say the word "pioneer" and the image is of gutsy halutzim with plows and water buckets, ready to build the country. But some pioneers keep pioneering long after the plowing stage, continuing to create and nurture new projects and programs, all with the goal of building an even-better country.
Yudke and Nurit Grossman were early members of Kibbutz Galon. But they didn't stop there. Both went on to initiate a number of service projects, both here and abroad. In his hometown, Yudke was dubbed "The King of Montreal" for his endless efforts to bring Canadians to visit, through a variety of programs and tour opportunities he initiated during two terms as a Jewish Agency emissary in 1975 and 1988. Through his efforts, more than 2,000 Canadian teenagers came to visit. After that, Yudke began working with North American universities, creating semester-abroad programs.
While in Montreal, the Grossmans both worked to establish the first youth center in a Jewish-neighborhood shopping mall, setting up parents' nights, Shabbat dinners, movie and coffee events - and the chance to sign up to visit Israel.
Both Grossmans continue to pioneer: Yudke now runs bar/bat mitzva tour programs for North Americans, while Nurit is the national president of People in Red, an organization which promotes road safety.
"I grew up in a Montreal shtetl," Yudke says. "It was solid Jewish for a 10-block area. Most parents were immigrants, and we kids went to six different public schools, all Jewish. My high school was Baron Byng, just like Duddy Kravitz - author Mordechai Richler was in my grade. He belonged to Habonim, while I was in Hashomer Hatza'ir. My father passed away when I was five, so I grew up in a home with a big extended family - uncles, cousins, family just arrived from Europe. No one in our neighborhood was rich, but no one was poor either. I always knew I was going to Israel. I was the first kid on the block to attend McGill University, where I graduated with a degree in economics."
Nurit didn't even know she was Jewish until after the war. "I was born in 1938 in a Jewish area in London, but during the war, we moved to north London. It sounds na ve now, but then, it seemed likely that the Germans would cross the Channel, so for safety, we pretended to be Christians. I went to Sunday school where the teacher warned us, 'Don't have anything to do with Jews. If you see one, run away!' Not until after the war, when it was safe to be Jewish again, did my mother tell me I was Jewish - I was so upset."
Later, a neighborhood girl invited Nurit to attend a Jewish youth group meeting. "I was about 13, and still sensitive about being Jewish, but my mother encouraged me to go once, just to see. I knew nothing about Jews or Israel, but the stories about Jewish heroes in the Warsaw Ghetto fascinated me - even though when they said 'ghetto', I thought they said 'gateau,' a cake. I loved the meetings, and eventually visited Israel with the group. When our ship neared Haifa, we stayed up all night to catch sight of land. I couldn't believe it - everyone Jewish, all speaking Hebrew!"
Right before her aliya, Nurit had second thoughts. "I hadn't really internalized that I was going. I wasn't sure. But my father encouraged me. 'You worked so hard,' he said. 'Your return ticket is here, even after just one day. But if you don't go, you'll always regret it.' The trip took five days, a combination of trains and ships. The worst feeling was that I'd never see my parents again."
Yudke's arrival was the fulfillment of his lifelong dream. "I couldn't wait. I was 20 years old, and we were going to change the world. It was difficult to leave my widowed mother. It was my brother who made it possible for me to come. The day my passport arrived was the worst - then my mother realized I was really going. She wanted me to go, but it was difficult to see me leave.
"Our garin traveled to New York by train, a boat to England, then a boat to France, most of us throwing up the whole way."
"We landed in Haifa in December. It was raining," Nurit says. "We got to the kibbutz, slouched up the hill through a sea of mud. I was miserable. But spring came, and soon there were flowers all over. By that time, I wanted to stay."
"Passing through New York, I bought a lot of nice clothes," Yudke says. "But when I got to the kibbutz, we had to donate what we brought, and wear something from the common pile. I'd bought a really nice pair of shoes and never got to wear them. I still remember the day I saw some other guy wearing my new shoes."
"Back in England, the movement was so pleasant. We'd sit around the fire and talk about the joys of being a pioneer. The reality was quite different - getting up before dawn to gather eggs or weed cotton. Here, it didn't matter how pretty we were or how we dressed. The only standard was how hard we worked for the common goal."
Yudke came directly to Kibbutz Galon. "I didn't choose where to come. The movement decided where we were needed. I'd never seen a cow in my life, but on the first day, I was sent to work in a dairy barn. But that's the way it was: They needed a dairyman? I became a dairyman."
Nurit and Yudke met almost right away, but didn't click until later. They married after Nurit had finished the army in 1963.
"I started in the children's house," Nurit says. "When the children napped, I was to clean the floor. I'd never used anything but a carpet sweeper, but they said, 'Throw water on it, then use the squeegee to move it to the drain.' What did I know? I threw seven pails of water on the floor - what a mess! The children treated it like a swimming pool."
"Being a dairyman is a way of life," Yudke says. "A regular farmer would do his work, but at the end of the day, he was done. For a dairyman, the cows were milked three times a day, 365 days a year - we were never done. We worked in two shifts, so I'd wake up at 3 a.m. for the morning milking, and thought nothing of putting in a 10-hour day.
"After many years, my mother came to visit. 'I don't understand,' she said. 'In our little home in Poland, we had three cows. I milked them myself. You have a degree from McGill, and now you're here, milking cows?'"
The Grossmans have four children, Tamar, Keren, Ran and their son Gal, who was tragically killed at 25. "Gal had finished army, but still felt he hadn't done enough. He signed up for the bomb squad, but then was killed in a highway accident. He was a wonderful son, he loved Israel and loved what he was doing. Now he's a part of Israel forever," Yudke says.
While in Montreal, Gal had earned his black belt in tae-kwon-do. The Grossmans turned their grief to good by raising funds to build the Gal Grossman Center, Israel's first martial arts center constructed to meet international specifications.
"I'll never forget the day when my Nahal unit marched in a parade through the streets of Tel Aviv," Nurit recalls. "If I had any doubts about where I belonged, they disappeared that day. Just being there, marching in Israel, being a part of it all. I was overcome with joy.
"Up to a year ago, both our mothers were living in Montreal. When we go back for family reunions, everyone would say, 'You did what we dreamed of doing.' I think we did."
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