Teaneck tree, shul staying put

Teaneck tree, shul staying put

Rededication set for venerable oak

This plaque will be planted near the giant red oak to commemorate those who fought to keep it rooted in Teaneck. Courtesy The Puffin Foundation

The tremendous tree whose uncertain fate stirred the passions of Teaneck’s green activists last year has a new lease on life, as does the synagogue that now hosts it.

Rooted at 811 Palisade Ave., the former site of the Union for Traditional Judaism and the Institute of Traditional Judaism, the tree was at the center of a town-wide debate on whether it could safely stand over Teaneck’s main drag, Cedar Lane. Netivot Shalom, the modern Orthodox synagogue that won last fall’s bankruptcy auction of the property, decided to keep it rooted to the property.

Thanks to a conservation easement made possible by a donation from the Puffin Foundation, the tree has come under the protection of the Bergen County Department of Parks. Puffin’s president, Perry Rosenstein, and Teaneck green activist Wally Cowan negotiated the easement with the parks department, while Martin Sarver, Puffin’s attorney, negotiated with the shul. Netivot Shalom and the Puffin Foundation will hold a rededication ceremony on Friday, May 6, to celebrate the tree’s salvation.

“We’re very happy to partner with the Puffin Foundation and Bergen County and we’re happy to do our part in the preservation of the tree,” Netivot Shalom’s president, Pamela Scheininger, told The Jewish Standard last week.

The tree is estimated to be between 250 and 350 years old and stands about 80 feet tall while measuring almost 19 feet around. Last year it was named to the state’s Big Tree list and declared the fourth largest red oak in New Jersey. While the fate of the property hung in limbo in bankruptcy court, Perry and Gladys Rosenstein of the Puffin Foundation stepped forward in October with an offer of up to $200,000 to the then-undetermined new owners to pay for a conservation easement to protect the tree.

“What we’re trying to do is draw the attention of Teaneck and the community at large [to the fact] that we’re so busy saving so many things, it’s time we saved things in our own country,” Perry Rosenstein told the Standard last week. “We saved the polar bears, we saved the reptiles, it’s time we saved something that’s part of our history. That’s what motivated us to save this tree.”

The tree dates back to at least the Revolutionary War, but after UTJ declared bankruptcy last spring its leaders decided to remove it, arguing that its aging limbs posed a danger to passersby. Critics, however, argued that the reason for its planned removal was to increase the property’s value.

When UTJ was preparing to remove the tree last summer, Cowan spearheaded protests that eventually led to UTJ’s decision to leave the tree’s fate to the next property owner. Netivot Shalom bought the building during a bankruptcy auction in the fall. Rosenstein praised Cowan and state Sen. Loretta Weinberg for leading the fight for the tree’s preservation.

The tree holds special memories for the senator, whose late husband Irwin led efforts to save it some three decades ago when a bank sought to tear it down to make way for a parking lot. Now when Weinberg and her children pass by, they affectionately refer to it as “Dad’s Tree.” Irwin Weinberg will be commemorated on a plaque that will be unveiled during the dedication.

“I am forever indebted to Wally Cowan, who took up the fight that my husband left off a number of years ago, and certainly to Gladys and Perry Rosenstein for finding the resources,” Weinberg said. “Everyone who drives up and down Cedar Lane will be able to look at that tree with a little bit of respect both for its age and its magnificence.”

While the tree’s fate hung in limbo, so, too, did that of Netivot Shalom, which was faced with the possibility of dispossession. Netivot Shalom had rented space in UTJ’s building for several years but complications and lawsuits arose last year after a lease dispute.

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