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Public defender was private lover of Israel

JNF and Federation to share $1.2 million from woman’s estate

by Elaine Durbach, NJJN Staff Writer

In her lifetime, Dinah Selvin had little involvement with organized Judaism, but evidently her feeling for the Jewish community was stronger than anyone knew. When she died three years ago at 90, Selvin — the former director of the Juvenile Section of the Essex County Public Defender’s Office — surprised even the executor of her will: She left most of her estate to be divided equally between the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.

Norman Friedman, who worked with Selvin and was a friend for 40 years, has served as her executor. He said she never talked to him about any religious affiliation or connection with either organization. The only clue to her interest was the artwork in her apartment. 

“There were pictures that suggested that she cared about Israel,” he said. 

Though she supported other causes during her life and in retirement gave of her time tutoring people in English, JNF and the federation were the only charities mentioned in her will.

The bequest, just settled, amounts to $1.2 million. That generosity has earned Selvin, who lived in Maplewood, a permanent place of honor both at federation headquarters and in Israel. Her name will be featured on the William and Betty Lester Society tribute monument in the atrium of the Aidekman campus in Whippany, which recognizes donors to Greater MetroWest UJA of $100,000 or more. And her name will be added to the JNF Wall of Honor at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem — site of a pivotal battle in the Six-Day War — a fitting spot given her service in uniform in World War II.

The shared bequest was welcomed at the Aidekman campus on May 1 by federation executive vice president/CEO Max Kleinman and JNF Central NJ executive director Joel Leibowitz. No decision has been made yet as to how the money will be used, but, Kleinman said, possible projects will be reviewed over the next few months.

Kleinman said that the two organizations have worked together often over the years, most recently on three shared projects. One is in Gush Etzion, another in Yeruham in the Negev. A third is in the Halutza region of the Negev adjacent to the Gaza Strip, where young people are being taught how to farm and develop the land. 

“It is anticipated that this collaboration will continue and grow. It’s a natural fit,” Leibowitz said. “Both organizations want to create jobs and opportunities for young people in Israel and are particularly interested in having people move to the Negev. It’s anticipated that this collaboration will continue and grow.”

Raised in Springfield, Mass., Selvin graduated from Smith College and became a physiotherapist. During World War II, she served as a first lieutenant in the United States Army, working at a medical clinic in England. Two decades later, she decided to switch careers, and earned a law degree at Seton Hall University. She became a trial attorney and joined the Public Defender’s Office. Selvin headed up the Juvenile Section from 1980 to 1985, when she retired at the age of 65. Friedman, who had worked closely with her, took over as head of the office.

Selvin, Friedman said, was a very private person but a very caring one, at work and with friends. “She had a great sense of humor,” he said. In the Public Defender’s Office, “she was the only woman working with a group of guys, and she needed one to work with us.” 

Selvin’s sister Beatrice, a distinguished anesthesiologist, died a few years ago. She had married, as Selvin had not, but neither had children.

The materials she left behind surprised Friedman almost as much as her will. Selvin left boxes of photo albums and memorabilia showing her time in the army and her travels abroad. She never mentioned either, he said, in all their long years of friendship.

Linda Forgosh, the executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey, also on the Aidekman campus, has gone through the brittle pages with meticulous care. She said that given their emphasis on Selvin’s army service, she is recommending that the material be offered to the Jewish War Veterans museum in Washington, DC. 

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JEWISH NATIONAL FUND (JNF) began in 1901 as a dream and vision to reestablish a homeland in Israel for Jewish people everywhere. Jews the world over collected coins in iconic JNF Blue Boxes, purchasing land and planting trees until ultimately, their dream of a Jewish homeland was a reality. JNF gives all generations of Jews a unique voice in building a prosperous future for the land of Israel and its people.

JNF embodies both heart and action; our work is varied in scope but singular in benefit. We strive to bring an enhanced quality of life to all of Israel’s residents, and translate these advancements to the world beyond. JNF is greening the desert with millions of trees, building thousands of parks, creating new communities and cities for generations of Israelis to call home, bolstering Israel’s water supply, helping develop innovative arid-agriculture techniques, and educating both young and old about the founding and importance of Israel and Zionism.

JNF is a registered 501(c)(3) organization and United Nations NGO, which continuously earns top ratings from charity overseers.

For more information on JNF, call 888-JNF-0099 or visit


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