Home is important to Burt Ziskind, both familial and ancestral.
The retired Air Force colonel’s family has deep Pittsburgh roots, and Ziskind delights in discussing his father and uncles, their time in the Steel City and their contributions to the country.
He also has a strong commitment to Israel and the larger Jewish community.
As much as Ziskind loves talking about family, he is just as enthusiastic about preserving ecological sites in both Pittsburgh and Israel. His latest endeavor was in the Jewish homeland, where he supported the creation of a wheelchair-accessible ecological pond, including an amphibian pool surrounded by plants originally depicted in the Bible, dedicated to the memory of his parents Sam, a World War II veteran and editor of the military magazine Soldiers, and Edith, a Holocaust survivor.
“I wanted to something as a legacy for them,” Ziskind said.
The Virginia native donated after learning about LOTEM, a Jewish National Fund-USA affiliate that brings nature to disadvantaged populations, according to Glenn Schwartz, JNF’s executive director, national major donors’ relations.
“One thing about Israel,” Schwartz said, “is that it’s very much focused on living outdoors and being outside and enjoying nature.”
In a recent B’YAchad magazine story, JNF-LOTEM Liaison Gaylee Schif said that Ziskind’s support for people with disabilities is cherished by the organization.
“Burt’s contribution allows thousands of students a year, no matter their abilities, to experience the beauty and enjoyment of connecting with the outdoors,” she said.
Ziskind has supported other ecological projects in Israel, as well. While on a final trip with his parents to the country, he visited a location near Be’er Sheva where Abraham and Abimelech were believed to have disputed over grazing land. The pair planted a tree there as a symbol of peace to help settle the disagreement. Ziskind donated funds to help preserve the site, now a 12-acre park named the Ziskind Family Forest.
“It’s a symbol of peace in the Middle East,” he said.
And while Ziskind is proud of his contributions to Israel —and his belief in the Jewish nation — he’s equally proud of his family’s connection to Pittsburgh and the work he has done to preserve green space here.
The 73-year-old recalled his family’s ties to the city, which includes those of his father and two uncles, one of whom argued before the United States Supreme Court.
After completing his military service, Ziskind decided he wanted to do more to leave the world a better place than he found it.
“I decided to pay back the country that I served and loved, in addition to homeland which we all love, which is Israel,” he said. “The way I do that is through the environment. I’ve also had a passion, long before it was in fashion, to help green the earth.”
Ziskind said he was distressed to see northern Virginia, where he grew up when his father served in the military, chopped up into shopping and strip malls.
“I wanted to do something using that overused phrase, tikkun olam, and leave the world a better place,” he said.
Part of that work included what is know known as the Ziskind Parklet in Point Breeze on Beechwood Boulevard, he said, noting that the park is near Fred Roger’s home.
“I did that in honor of the war heroes — Jerry, Sam and Jack,” he said, recounting his father and uncle’s names.
Schwartz said that the support of people like Ziskind makes the work of JNF possible.
“It’s because of people like Burt who make a long-term commitment that goes on and on,” he said. “We call them ambassadors to the organization because they are the ones out there talking about us and what we’re doing, telling others what we’re about. They really make a difference for us.”
For Ziskind, support for the environment is entwined with his idea of creating a family legacy.
“That’s my lifelong passion,” he said. “Heritage is important. We’re a traditional patriotic family that wants to give back to this wonderful country that’s done so much for us, but also Israel. It’s an opportunity to contribute to both locations.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.