|The venerable red oak at Palisade Avenue and Cedar Lane. Josh Lipowsky|
Teaneck’s giant red oak survived the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and even the contentious bankruptcy hearings of the Union for Traditional Judaism, which gave rise to a town-wide battle for the tree’s future.
But the yellow ribbon around this ole oak tree now is cautionary tape. Bergen County surveyed the tree’s inner strength this month – and concluded that its time had passed.
The tree, estimated to be between 250 and 300 years old, sits at the intersection of Palisade Avenue and Cedar Lane, on the property of the modern Orthodox synagogue Netivot Shalom, but Teaneck’s Puffin Foundation paid a preservation easement in 2011 that turned responsibility for the tree – the fourth largest red oak in New Jersey – over to the county. This month, a county-hired arborist discovered a weakened root system and large amounts of decay in many of the tree’s branches, and certified that options for cabling branches to prevent them from falling onto people and property are not viable. As a result, the county intends to remove the tree on May 30 or 31, according to Jeanne Baratta, chief of staff of the Bergen County Executive.
The county contacted the synagogue and the foundation last week, just before Shavuot, alerting them of plans to remove the tree because of safety concerns, according to David Montag, Netivot Shalom’s president. Leaders of Netivot and Puffin met with county officials last Friday to discuss options, and the county agreed to hold off on the tree’s removal until after an independent arborist hired by Puffin could determine if it could be saved.
Perry and Gladys Rosenstein, president and executive director, respectively, of the Puffin Foundation, already had fought hard to save the tree when the site’s previous owner, the Union for Traditional Judaism, declared bankruptcy in 2010 and sought to remove the tree before selling the property. Netivot Shalom, which at the time met in the UTJ building, bought the property later that year, planning to preserve the tree. Puffin paid the $200,000 easement for the county to take responsibility of the tree, and $100,000 to create a fund for the county to care for the tree in perpetuity. Teaneck declared the tree an historic site in February of this year.
On Tuesday, the Rosensteins had their own contracted arborist, Patrick Allen, inspect the tree. The Rosensteins did not contest the county’s findings of decay but sought alternatives to removal.
“We simply asked him, ‘How do we save the tree,'” Perry Rosenstein said. “He was going to verify all the things the county said and make recommendations.”
“Our main concern, along with the county, is for safety,” Gladys Rosenstein said. “We would not want anything remaining that would be unsafe for the children. We want to make sure all aspects have been looked at and covered.”
Allen did not immediately return a call from the Standard Tuesday afternoon, but a preliminary report to Baratta later that day confirmed the county’s findings. She confirmed to the Jewish Standard later that day that the removal would go ahead at the end of the month.
“The tree could last there another two, three, four years, but it could also come down with the right kind of storm and we don’t want to take any chances with the way it’s situated,” Baratta said. “That’s why we’re moving so fast on this.”
Preliminary evaluations seemed positive, but closer inspection of the branches revealed damage inside, according to Baratta. An apparent lightning strike some five to 10 years earlier had caused internal damage, and when the street was widened about 20 years ago, there was damage to the tree’s root system that had gone undetected.
“It came as a shock,” Netivot’s Montag said. “Their expert told them branches could fall. It’s not just a risk for us using the property and having kids in the yard, it’s a risk for people in the street. They felt the prudent course was to take it down.”
Irwin Weinberg, the late husband of state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), defended the tree more than 25 years ago, when an adjacent bank wanted to turn the land into a parking lot. The senator credited her husband with spending long hours arguing before the Teaneck planning board that the tree should not be sacrificed. The senator was an outspoken advocate for the tree, which her children refer to as “Dad’s Tree,” in 2010.
“It makes me very sad,” Weinberg said. “I feel like in some ways I’d be losing a very good friend.”
Though the branches of the mighty tree no longer will stretch out over the synagogue or Cedar Lane, the tree’s removal might not be the end of its story. Baratta suggested that pieces of the tree could adorn Paramus’s Van Saun Park, while the Rosensteins said their arborist suggested the tree could be cloned. The county has been “very nice, saying they would try to do something in memory of the tree,” Gladys Rosenstein said.
Discussions have yet to take place and Netivot Shalom, as owner of the property, has to be consulted, Baratta said. She expects that the plaque now marking the tree will be modified to commemorate the spot after the tree’s removal.
“We haven’t discussed anything yet ““ we’re in shock it’s come to this,” Montag said, adding that the shul will call a general membership meeting to discuss how to proceed, but there are no intentions to develop the property other than as the playground for which it is now used.
The county has promised “restitution for planting similar trees in Teaneck,” Perry Rosenstein said, and Weinberg is optimistic that something new will sprout up.
“I’m hoping we can plant a new tree in that spot that would be cared for and grow for another 300 years and generations to come will enjoy a new, growing live tree there,” she said.