Area man helps make desert bloom — again

Area man helps make desert bloom — again

When Norman Seiden visits Israel these days, he marvels at the transformation he’s witnessed in his lifetime. The octogenarian recalls a time when desert as far as the eye could see surrounded the road he traveled between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In those days, his wife, Barbara, put her change into a tin blue tzedakah box and taught their three children to do the same. The money was donated to the Jewish National Fund for the purchase of land in a Jewish homeland Seiden’s father and other members of his family helped build.

Through the years, the Seidens contributed far more than money to JNF, as they planted and dedicated thousands of trees, whole woodlands, actually. The family’s deep roots in Israel — Seiden has nearly as many cousins there as trees in his name — have created an unbreakable physical and spiritual connection. He and Barbara were practicing Jewish continuity long before the phrase was popularized, he said, believing that "our values would be transmitted in role modeling and [give] us opportunities to go as a family to Israel."

Said Seiden, "We already see it’s having a huge positive effect" in the involvement in Jewish life and commitment to Israel by his 11 grandchildren and now three great-grandchildren, whom Seiden calls "the pride and joy of my life."

That’s why Seiden was quick to respond when he heard two months ago that a portion of the 500-acre Yechaim Forest in Nahariya was destroyed last summer by a fire sparked by Hezbollah rockets raining down on this western Galilee community.

His lead gift will help JNF jumpstart a $400 million, 10-year worldwide campaign to rebuild and renew northern Israel. According to information supplied by Talia Tzour, JNF’s Israel emissary in New Jersey, the drive will "focus on reforestation, upgrading parks and recreation sites, developing tourism, preparing land for agriculture, and providing research and development," as well as purchasing firefighting equipment for disaster preparedness and creating a home loan program to encourage families to return or relocate to the hard-hit region.

At the top of the list is the replanting of a 150-acre site with 10,000 trees indigenous to the area, including oak, pistachio, arbutus, Judas species, and more. This initial phase, which will cost $50,000, will also restore stone terraces and seating areas. But much more, at least another $100,000, will be needed, said Tzour, for JNF to build better recreational facilities. The plan is to install picnic tables and playscapes for Nahariya residents to enjoy.

As Seiden hoped, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, Nahariya’s "twin city," is on the bandwagon, said Tzour. On a mission to Israel in December, members of the executive board met with Omri Boneh, JNF northern regional director, who showed the group the area and the impact of the war on the forest. They returned, she said, committed to "adopt" the forest, making it "one of the many projects UJA-NNJ will sponsor in or near Nahariya in ‘007." UJA-NNJ has already made a significant donation to the replanting, which, combined with the Seiden gift, will cover half that cost.

JNF hopes to raise additional funds through a local campaign that Seiden will kick off with a symbolic planting of a tree at JNF’s Sense-Sational Tu b’Shevat Celebration at the JCC on the Palisades. Free and open to the public, the event, to be held Sunday, Feb. 4, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., will feature performances by local choral groups, holiday foods, games, arts and crafts, and other activities. The JCC is at 411 E. Clinton Ave. in Tenafly.

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