UTJ tree makes the big time, but still may be uprooted

UTJ tree makes the big time, but still may be uprooted

Tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree on the corner on the Teaneck property of the Union for Traditional Judaism. According to the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry, the tree is big. Really big. The fourth biggest red oak in New Jersey, actually.

Parks and Forestry added the tree to its “Big Tree” list last week after Sen. Loretta Weinberg approached the department about a month ago. The red oak is New Jersey’s state tree, but the Big Tree listing does not offer any special protection for the UTJ tree, which has been at the center of a months-long debate between the community and the bankrupt UTJ, which is trying to sell the property.

“It doesn’t convey upon the tree any particular legal aspect, but it does enhance what should be our community’s respect,” Weinberg told The Jewish Standard. “Whoever purchases the land is going to realize this is a very big community issue and will (hopefully) have respect for the community in which they’re planning to move.”

Tree facts
Circumference: 18.5 feet

Height: 80 feet

Estimated age: At least 250 years

UTJ and its sister organization, the Institute of Traditional Judaism, declared bankruptcy in May and the organization’s leaders decided to sell its headquarters to cover its debts. Controversy erupted in July when the union began work to remove a large oak tree that towers over the property. Union leaders argued that safety concerns prompted them to seek the tree’s removal, while the tree’s supporters argued that the removal was a ploy to get more money for the property.

The union decided not to remove the tree at that time and proceeded with an August auction. Real estate development company 333 Realty won that auction with a bid of $1.45 million. The buyer, however, decided not to move forward at that price, according to UTJ’s bankruptcy attorney. In order to receive court approval of a negotiated lower price of $1.2 million, a new auction must first take place. That auction is scheduled for Nov. 1.

The Puffin Foundation last month stepped into the picture with an offer to the successful bidder of up to $200,000 to pay for an easement to maintain the tree.

“I’m optimistic but we have to wait and see who is going to be the winning bidder in the next go-around, and what that bidder plans to do with the land,” Weinberg said.

U.S. Bankruptcy Court granted a motion earlier this week that allows UTJ to remove the tree if the winning bidder requested it. UTJ’s leader emphasized that there are no immediate plans to uproot the oak.

“We have no intention of touching the tree until after the auction, should it be necessary at that point,” said Rabbi Ronald Price, UTJ’s executive vice president.

Until a closing date is set, UTJ and its sister organization, the ITJ, are unable to move forward with preparations for a new headquarters. The organizations are concentrating in the meantime on distance-learning programs, Price said. “We are spending most of our time now focusing on … getting our real work of outreach done,” Price said. “The tree issue is a secondary issue to us now.”

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