When Nurit Grossman lost her son in a road accident, she founded a campaign to try to make Israel’s roads safer.
The bereaved Israeli mother behind the road safety advocacy group People in Red (Anashim Be’Adom) is not afraid to demonstrate or lecture – whatever it takes to get the message out that the carnage on Israel’s roads is unacceptable.
It’s been 14 years since Nurit Grossman’s son, Gal, was killed in a car accident — one of 30,000 people who have lost their lives on Israeli roads since the establishment of the state.
Gal, her third child, was serving with the army’s bomb squad and was one day asked to report to Ramallah. Nurit was heading that way for a two-day course in Jerusalem prior to starting a new job, so they drove together from their home on Kibbutz Gal-On. It was a precious outing for a mother-son pair who had recently come through a rocky patch in their relationship.
“We had such a wonderful time,” Nurit recalls. “When we got to Jerusalem, I watched him get out of the car and walk away. He was so at peace with himself, and I was so happy for him.”
Late that night, her husband, Yudke, arrived at her hotel accompanied by police officers. “He told me there had been a terrible accident and Gal was killed. I was hysterical. We drove back to Gal-On, and every quarter of an hour I had to stop and throw up. When we arrived, all our friends from all over the country were there, and the house was chockfull of soldiers. I don’t remember much more.”
Only weeks later, 73 Israeli soldiers died in a helicopter crash and Nurit heard a rabbi being interviewed on the radio concerning the tragedy. Admitting he had no answers, the rabbi asserted that the important thing was “where we go with what has happened.” This notion touched a chord.
“I could sit home and be miserable or do everything I could to try to stop other families from becoming bereaved,” she recalls.
The very next day she set the groundwork for a road safety awareness committee. She called it Women in Red, Nashim Be’Adom (the color symbolizes blood) after peace activist Anat Hoffman of Women in Black encouraged her to marshal the power of bereaved mothers. However, the half-dozen early members were soon joined by men — hence the gender-neutral anashim, people.
“Every Friday, a different one of us would demonstrate at a different junction,” she says. Within a couple of years, however, they realized that “people already knew both the problem and the answers, but the government wasn’t doing anything about it.”
She does not believe that situation has changed much despite her best efforts. But the organization has done much on a grassroots basis through its chapters around the country. It pioneered Israel’s graduated licensing law; mounted a successful “How is my driving?” bumper sticker program for corporate and army vehicles; won awards for videos on drunk driving (see first video below) and the history of the organization (see second video below); and innovated numerous educational projects for all ages.
Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, a People in Red member, took a t-shirt with the group’s logo on the ill-fated 2003 space shuttle Columbia. Today, the Jerusalem high school named his in memory “does amazing work on road safety,” Nurit says.
Raised as a Christian
Born Jean Alicia Furst in 1938 London, Nurit did not know she was Jewish until after the war.
“We spent the war years on the coast, and I grew up as a Christian because my parents were afraid to identify as Jews,” she says. Her Sunday school teacher taught that Jews had horns and were responsible for all evil.
“We moved back to London after the war, and the day we arrived my mother said, ‘Thank goodness we can be Jewish again.’ I would not accept that we were Jewish. I looked in the mirror for horns and there weren’t any.”
When she was 13, her mother persuaded her to go to a meeting of the socialist Zionist youth group HaShomer HaTzair. “I was terrified that someone would notice me with Jewish kids,” she recalled.
But the meeting changed her life. “About 50 to 60 young kids were dancing the hora and singing about how good it was to be Jewish. I thought they were nuts.”
A speaker told them about the Warsaw ghetto (“I could not understand why they were talking about cream cakes,” she recalls, initially mistaking “ghetto” for “gateau” in her ignorance). “I was entranced. I did not know there were Jewish heroes.”
From chicken coops to traffic safety
In the winter of 1962, she moved to Kibbutz Nahshonim with a HaShomer HaTzair contingent. After completing army service in 1964, she married Yudke Grossman from Montreal and moved to his kibbutz, Gal-On.
While raising two girls and two boys, Nurit worked in the chicken coop, lifeguarded at the pool and taught English. ln 1975, the Grossmans set off for Montreal, where Yudke ran aliyah programs for four successful years. The family returned to Montreal from 1988 to 1991 on behalf of the Jewish National Fund-Canada.
Gal, by then in university, reluctantly left Canada and served in the Israeli Navy. Angry with his parents for what he felt was an unsettled youth in two countries, he stopped speaking to them for about a year. Slowly, the rift healed and he came back to work in the kibbutz fields before becoming a sapper in 1994.
Nurit feels that Gal, a Peace Now adherent, would have approved of her activism.
“I try to encourage my children to speak out against things they feel are wrong, and I like to think he would have been pleased I was speaking out on traffic safety — not because of him but because people are getting killed on the roads and the decision-makers are not doing all they can to stop it.”