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Teaneck shul to create a social justice group

Lois GoldrichLocal
Published: 06 November 2009

This weekend, the young people of Netivot Shalom will study the concept of social responsibility at a Shabbaton hosting Rabbi Ari Weiss, director of Uri L’Tzedek.

The group —which describes itself as “an Orthodox social justice organization guided by Torah values and dedicated to combating suffering and oppression” — has been actively involved in the Tav HaYosher ethical seal project, which stresses not only the kashrut of food but also “the dignity and rights of those who produced it.”

According to Pam Scheininger, president of the Teaneck congregation, members of her synagogue have traditionally turned out in large numbers for chesed projects, often bringing their children with them.

Whether participating in the shul’s CareOne bikkur cholim project, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Mitzvah Day, or the congregation’s new “birthday ma’aser [tithing] program, which encourages kids to give a certain number of their birthday gifts to children who are less fortunate,” the youths have been exposed to “the idea of looking to the Torah and taking lessons on how to react to the larger community,” said Scheininger.

Hod Klein, a Rutgers senior entering his third year as the congregation’s youth director, said he has heard a lot about Uri L’Tzedek and was inspired to bring its message to the synagogue.

“What they’re doing is very important,” he said. “There are some great people working on it who can help us” at the synagogue.

While the congregation has tried to include its youngsters in chesed projects over the years, said Scheininger, this year she and Klein decided to move in a new direction, organizing activities around a specific theme.

“While many of our projects have been specifically within the Jewish community, the idea is that the Torah and halacha are not only a guide to [this kind of] interaction but can be expanded to focus on issues of social justice such as homelessness, poverty, immigration, health care, ethical kashrut, and prison care,” she said.

While this kind of outreach is not new to the Orthodox community, “it’s definitely in its newer stages,” said Scheininger. “It puts a title on it,” urging the community to fight for social justice “because Orthodoxy demands it,” she said.

Working with Uri L’Tzedek is a “natural fit,” she said. “They have programs running on college campuses and high schools and can provide a curriculum.”

“Our shul is dedicated to the idea of tikkun olam, the Torah view of justice, and our responsibilities” in that regard, said Klein, who grew up in Bergen County and had been a rabbinic intern at the synagogue.

Both Klein and Scheininger noted that parents and students have responded positively to the social justice initiative, and they are expecting a large turnout at the Shabbaton.
At the event, synagogue youth group leaders, ranging in age from 13 to 18, will be trained to lead students in the new venture. While seventh-graders are too young to be group leaders, said Klein, they will also be given a chance to participate, taking on an “informal” role in working with younger children, from nursery-school age through third grade.

Klein, who meets regularly with youth leaders, said “This is the first time we will train them around a theme,” he said. Curricular materials will be provided by Uri L’Tzedek.

Klein said that while he has generally worked in cooperation with parent groups on chesed projects, “Uri L’Tzedek engages the children in a more educational way. We’re building a curriculum,” he said, adding that he is compiling different ideas for the youngsters to discuss over Shabbat “to see what the kids are interested in.”

“We’ll bounce ideas back and forth,” he said, noting that he hopes to see a project centering on fair trade. “It’s a great way to get the kids engaged and active,” he said.

While the weekend will include text study, “it’s also important that the kids be involved” in social justice projects.

“It’s really exciting to be offering something new and unique to the shul,” said Klein. “I want to see it grow and develop.”

 
 

Sperber to explore the role of women in worship during Teaneck talk

While women’s participation in the synagogue service remains a controversial issue within the Orthodox movement, Rabbi Daniel Sperber says his writings on the subject have generally been greeted “respectfully.”

Sperber — professor of Talmud at Bar Ilan University in Israel as well as prolific author, pulpit rabbi, and 1992 winner of the Israel Prize for Jewish Studies — will speak in Teaneck later this month, advocating for greater involvement by women in communal worship.

An Orthodox rabbi, Sperber said he is trying to counter the “mistaken” idea that such participation is not halachic. That idea “is based on a lack of understanding, on a sociological situation that is no longer relevant,” he said.

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Rabbi Daniel Sperber

The rabbi’s views are expanded in “Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectives,” published recently by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. According to a JOFA spokesperson, the book includes not only Sperber’s position but also two essays opposing that view by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Prof. Eliav Shochetman, thus demonstrating “the dynamic nature of the halachic process.”

Longtime JOFA board member Pam Scheininger, a Teaneck resident and president of Netivot Shalom, said she had read Sperber’s article before receiving the JOFA publication. While “he makes a great deal of sense,” she said, “both arguments have merit and are laid out very well.”

Scheininger said she applauded JOFA for “striving to give an honest analysis” of the issue, “presenting both arguments to empower the readers to come to their own decisions. It tries to be intellectually honest,” she said, “and to get members to think through and learn through these issues and try to participate in a meaningful way.”

“Many congregations are struggling with these questions in their own community and are not sure whether to make a certain move in a certain direction,” said Sperber, adding that they are “very grateful” when he presents his position. Still, he said, he ensures that they make their own decisions, asking “whether they’re willing to take on themselves all the possible sociological implications,” such as criticism from local rabbis.

Scheininger agrees that the role of women is high on the agenda of Orthodox synagogues. Independent of the specific issue of women reading Torah, she said, “Most Modern Orthodox congregations are struggling with the issue of women’s participation, trying to find a level of partnership they’re comfortable with.”

“In each Modern Orthodox congregation, discussion is happening as to how best to meet the needs of the whole community as well as those of individual members,” she said.

“Rabbi Sperber is a tremendous Torah mind and I’m sure many people will come out to hear him.”

“I go where I am invited to speak,” said Sperber, noting that even those who do not accept his views tend to be “respectful of them.” He said he began publishing his views on this subject several years ago. “Since then, I have been ‘on the circuit,’” he joked.

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He noted that several Orthodox synagogues in Israel, following the example of Jerusalem congregation Shira Hadasha, are already “semi-egalitarian,” adding that he believes such synagogues will become more numerous and more acceptable. His own congregation, Menachem Zion Synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem, is not likely to be one of them, he said.

Sperber said that not only was he aware of the recent controversy involving Rabbi Avi Weiss — who came under fire for dubbing a female rabbinic staff member “rabba,” replacing her previous title, “maharat” — but he had tried to discourage Weiss from taking that step.

“I was one of the signatories to her smicha, I tested her,” he said. Nevertheless, when discussions arose about changing her title, “I advised against it, suggesting that they take some time to let [the title] ‘maharat’ sink in.” He said the resulting flap reached Israel, “but not with the same degree of acrimony.”

“Here we hardly have women functioning in this position,” he said. “Certainly there is no official recognition.”

Sperber will speak about the JOFA book Friday evening, June 25, at the Davar Institute and on Shabbat morning, June 26, at Netivot Shalom. On late Shabbat afternoon, he will deliver a talk at Rinat Yisrael on not eating meat or drinking wine during the three weeks before Tisha b’Av.

For additional information, call (212) 679-8500 or visit .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

Tree diverts community from UTJ bankruptcy case

The fate of a centuries-old tree on the property of the Union For Traditional Judaism has ignited the passions of the community and pushed UTJ out on a limb. UTJ declared bankruptcy in May and its Teaneck building is headed for a court-ordered auction next month.

The auction is scheduled for Aug. 4. UTJ, which also runs the Institute of Traditional Judaism, hopes to sell the property for at least $1.5 million, according to court records.

Once the building is sold, UTJ will look to rent another operating space, said the organization’s president, Rabbi Edward Gershfield of Manhattan.

“Our property is worth more than all our debts,” he said. “But in order to pay those debts we have decided to sell the property.”

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Teaneck residents are up in arms over the fate of this centuries-old oak, slated to be removed by its bankrupt owner. Josh Lipowsky

UTJ could relocate anywhere in New Jersey or New York, according to Gershfield. Until it sells the property, however, the organization does not have the funds to make a move, he said.

“Until we sell the property we are strapped for cash, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t sell the property — except for interference by outside parties,” he said.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks now is an oak tree, estimated to be somewhere between 200 and 300 years old, on the corner of the property. UTJ’s leadership is concerned that the towering tree’s branches, which stretch over Cedar Lane, represent a danger to passersby. UTJ sought to remove the tree late last month.

“The fact of the matter is, from our perspective, the tree represents a significant hazard,” said Rabbi Ronald Price, executive vice president of UTJ. He cited a June 29 incident when one of the tree’s limbs dropped onto the sidewalk.
“That pretty much convinced us we had to move in terms of taking down the tree,” he said.

UTJ hired Tree Max Inc. of South Plainfield to remove the tree, but local activists spotted the work and called the police, who ordered it stopped.

In a July 7 report, Tree Max president Mark Diamante wrote, “I feel compelled to inform whomever [sic] it is that wants to preserve this tree that what it is they want to preserve is a very old and unsafe tree, and peril is imminent.”

Diamante included pictures that he said showed evidence of decay and rot that make the tree unsafe.

The Teaneck Township Council took up the tree’s fate at its meeting on Tuesday. An overflow crowd of about 100 gathered in and outside of the council chambers as the township’s arborist presented a report that deemed the tree salvageable.

According to the report by Almstead Tree & Shrub Co., the tree does represent a “moderate risk of failure at this particular moment in time,” because of decay on the west side of the tree and an old wound in the stem that has healed. Almstead recommended, however, that the tree be saved and managed with annual inspections, pruning, and the installation of support cables and rods.

A third inspector, Professional Tree Works, recommended in a July 10 report that the tree be removed because it represents “a potential hazzard [sic].”

At issue during the meeting was the possibility the council would step in to buy the property using money from the Municipal Open Space Trust fund. After two hours of impassioned testimony from Teaneck residents, members of the council one by one expressed sympathy with the tree’s would-be saviors, but none could justify the more than $1 million expenditure in light of recent budget cuts.

“This is an ethical dilemma. This is a horrible situation,” said Councilwoman Barbara Ley Toffler. “I defy anyone to stand up and say do the right thing because I don’t know what the right thing is.”

“I implore the owners to work it out,” said Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin after the council decided not to make a bid on the property in the bankruptcy proceedings.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg spoke passionately at Tuesday’s meeting about the tree, which her late husband Irwin had fought to save almost four decades ago. Her children refer to it as “Dad’s tree” or “Irwin’s tree.” She pointed out that during the major storm in March that downed hundreds of trees across Teaneck, that tree didn’t lose one limb.

That storm uprooted hundreds of trees and left thousands without power for days. It also brought down a large oak on the north side of Teaneck that killed two men walking home from synagogue. UTJ’s leaders stressed this incident making their case for removing the tree.

“It’s clear this tree is a hazard,” Gershfield told the Standard, “and we want to get rid of it because we don’t want anybody to get hurt. I have an obligation not to allow this tree to kill someone or hurt someone.”

“Taking that tree down is being disingenuous at best,” Weinberg said after the meeting, indicating that UTJ had another motive for its removal. “Any tree or light pole can fall down. There’s no reason to believe this tree is going to fall down.”

Despite residents’ claims during Tuesday’s meeting that the tree was being removed mainly for financial reasons, safety remains the No. 1 motivator, according to Price and Gershfield.

Earlier on Tuesday, Weinberg asked the state Environmental Protection Agency and the state Division of Forestry if Teaneck can apply for an easement that would separate the tree from the rest of the property. As of this printing she had not received a response and did not know if one would come in time to save the tree.

The tree is still scheduled to come down on Monday, but UTJ does have to first get approval from the bankruptcy court, said Janice Grubin of the New York firm Todtman, Nachamie, Spizz & Johns, which is representing UTJ in the bankruptcy filing.

“The town has indicated it’s not going to be involved or participate in the case,” she said Wednesday morning. “From our standpoint, we’re not going to be fighting with the town. Whether some arrangement that can benefit everybody can be worked out remains to be seen.”

UTJ and ITJ are debtors in possession, she said. “They have a duty to creditors to maximize the value of their property.”

The old oak tree is not the only obstacle to UTJ’s liquidation plans. Netivot Shalom, the synagogue that has met in UTJ’s building for several years, is tied up in litigation with its landlord. According to Gershfield, Netivot’s lease expired in December 2008 and the congregation has been operating on a month-to-month interim agreement. Gershfield said Netivot claims to be operating under an verbal lease — a claim, he said, there is no evidence to support.

UTJ had filed an eviction notice and the two organizations were pursuing litigation regarding that, as well as Netivot’s claim to right-of-first-refusal in a sale of the property.

Judge Robert D. Drain, who is overseeing UTJ’s bankruptcy filing, ordered a stay on all other litigation. Netivot remains a party of interest in the bankruptcy filing, according to Jordan Kaye, an attorney with the New York firm Kramer, Levin, Naftalis & Frankel, which is representing Netivot in the proceedings.

“We have an interest in bidding at auction,” said the synagogue’s president, Pam Scheininger.

 
 

UTJ’s Teaneck site sold at auction

Tree’s fate in hands of new owner

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The Union for Traditional Judaism has sold its building on the corner of Palisade Avenue and Cedar Lane in Teaneck and is looking to rent a smaller space in the township. Josh Lipowsky

The Union for Traditional Judaism sold its Teaneck headquarters at a bankruptcy auction last week, despite recent controversy surrounding a centuries-old tree on its property.

“We’re very excited about finally being able to focus on our real work and not be focused on real estate and government complaints,” Rabbi Ronald Price, UTJ’s executive vice president, told The Jewish Standard this week. “We’re hoping that this process will shortly be behind us.”

UTJ, which also runs the Institute for Traditional Judaism, is looking at two possible rentals in Teaneck. The union has six full-time employees, while 12 students are enrolled in the ITJ. That number is expected to increase in the fall with the launch of distance-learning programs. Because of its small number of regular employees, UTJ is looking at locations one-quarter the size of its current building, or about 1,500 square feet, Price said.

“Because the ITJ is doing so much more work online and giving a lot of emphasis to distance learning, the space requirement is substantially less,” he said.

Judge Robert Drain ruled on Aug. 4 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in White Plains, N.Y., that 333 Realty had won the auction with its initial bid of $1,450,000, since no other bidders stepped forward. The court has to hand down a written ruling, however, which as of Wednesday had not been issued. Once that is issued, 333 Realty and UTJ will have 30 days to close on the property.

According to Janice Grubin, the attorney assigned to UTJ by the bankruptcy court, 333 intends to develop the property commercially, but she offered no other details as to the fate of the property or the old oak tree.

“The debtors are delighted at the approval of the sale to 333 Realty and look forward to consummating the transaction and moving ahead in their reorganization,” she said.

UTJ declared bankruptcy in May and its leaders decided to sell its headquarters to cover its debts. Controversy erupted last month 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 tree, estimated to be between 200 and 300 years old, is considered the oldest in Teaneck.

“It’s clear this tree is a hazard and we want to get rid of it because we don’t want anybody to get hurt,” UTJ’s president, Rabbi Edward Gershfield, told the Standard last month. “I have an obligation not to allow this tree to kill someone or hurt someone.”

Spurred by protests and petitions by eco-activists, the Teaneck township council took up the issue at its July meeting and considered making a bid on the property to save the tree. The council, however, decided that it could not justify the expenditure of $1.5 million for the property, given recent budget cuts, nor could it stall the bankruptcy court while it investigated other options to save the tree.

Though the township decided not to intervene, UTJ left the tree up through the auction. It will now fall on the new tenant to decide the tree’s fate.

Netivot Shalom, the modern Orthodox congregation that has met in the UTJ building for more than 10 years, had filled out paperwork to make a bid on the property but did not submit one. According to the congregation’s president, Pamela Scheininger, Netivot Shalom had intended to bid but “there were a variety of factors that had to come into place that ultimately did not come into place.”

She would not elaborate on what those factors were.

The congregation has not been in touch with either UTJ or 333 Realty about a deadline for vacating the premises, she said. “We’re still looking at all of our available options.”

 
 

Future of Union for Traditional Judaism sale uncertain

The Union for Traditional Judaism’s Teaneck headquarters sold at auction early last month, but a motion filed last week in U.S. bankruptcy court last week cast doubt on the transaction.

UTJ’s attorney, Janice Grubin, filed a motion on Aug. 27 requesting an extension for her client to file a Chapter 11 plan. Extending this period of exclusivity, during which the debtor can create a plan to pull itself out of bankruptcy without imposed outside solutions, is not atypical in bankruptcy cases, she said. The property went to auction on Aug. 4, which was won by 333 Realty for $1.45 million.

“In the normal course of Chapter 11 cases, debtors often move for extension of their exclusive period to file a plan and solicit acceptances thereto,” she said. “This is a very common motion filed by Chapter 11 debtors.”

Within the motion, however, is language that puts the sale into doubt. A section listing cause to extend the exclusive period references “a significant unresolved contingency still exists — namely, the Sale with an approved buyer, 333 Realty LLC, who, it now appears, may not close.”

Grubin based that concern on communication with 333 Realty.

According to the motion, UTJ intends to address the issue soon, which may include canceling the sale and going to a new auction in mid-October.

Jack Zakim, 333 Realty’s attorney, told The Jewish Standard on Monday that his client has no plans to break its contract with UTJ. Nor, he said, has a decision been made as to how his client plans to develop the property.

The real estate company is, however, engaged in discussions with a group of Teaneck conservationists who want to save the massive oak tree on the property.

“There’s a lot of moving parts here and it keeps changing every day,” he said.

The motion has raised hopes at Netivot Shalom, the modern Orthodox synagogue that has met in UTJ for more than 10 years, that 333 Realty would not purchase the building and the synagogue would have another chance to buy it.

“Our preference far and away would be to stay in the present location,” the shul’s president, Pamela Scheininger said. “We’d like to speak to UTJ again about acquiring the property. It’s always been our objective.”

Netivot Shalom began a capital campaign earlier this week to raise funds to buy the building. A goal has been set, but Scheininger would not comment on it since it had not yet been revealed to the membership.

“We are confident we will be able to raise the funds necessary to secure Netivot Shalom’s future,” she said.

Netivot Shalom filed paperwork to make a bid during last month’s bankruptcy auction, but did not bid in the Aug. 4 auction.

“We have looked at everything that has been suggested to us,” Scheininger said. “We have not ruled out anything at this point.”

UTJ declared bankruptcy in May and its 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 tree, estimated to be between 200 and 300 years old, is considered the oldest in Teaneck.

Spurred by protests and petitions by eco-activists, the Teaneck township council took up the issue at its July meeting and considered bidding on the property to save the tree. The council ultimately decided not to intervene, but UTJ left the tree up through the auction. UTJ has asked for written proposals from whoever is interested in preserving the tree but has not received any, Grubin said.

“We’re doing our best to maximize the debtors’ assets,” she said. “Whether that is with or without the tree is still an open issue.”

Until a closing date is decided upon, UTJ finds itself unable to make other housing arrangements.

“We’ve shopped for a number of different sites that look very appealing to us,” said Rabbi Ronald Price, UTJ’s executive vice president, “but until the building closes we really can’t take a chance on signing a lease with somebody else.”

When it entered bankruptcy, UTJ secured financing that will keep it “in reasonably healthy shape” for six to 12 months, Price said. A planning committee to examine a post-Chapter 11 future for the union gave its first report at a board meeting Monday night, but the board decided against making the report public.

“We see the current situation as something that will eventually pass, God willing,” Price said.

Judge Robert Drain is expected to hear UTJ’s motion in U.S. bankruptcy court in White Plains, N.Y., on Sept. 13.

 
 

Jewish Center of Teaneck to host first women’s Torah reading on Simchat Torah

On Simchat Torah, which celebrates the completion of the reading of the Torah, everybody in shul is supposed to get an aliyah. In non-egalitarian Orthodox synagogues, however, women often watch from the sidelines as the men dance with the Torah and get called up for aliyot.

Not this year at The Jewish Center of Teaneck.

The center will hold its first Simchat Torah women’s Torah reading on Oct. 1, led by congregant Deborah Wenger.

“For anyone who’s never done this, it’s such a meaningful thing to actually be able to see what a Torah looks like, to say the brachot over the Torah, to participate in the mitzvah,” Wenger said.

She noted that the women will not say the traditional blessing before the Torah readings and the service is not a minyan. It is, she said, completely in line with halacha.

Wenger led a women’s Megillah reading during Purim, another first at the center. The center’s board declared the center officially Orthodox earlier this year. It had never affiliated in its almost 80-year history and it held traditional services that, although they included mixed seating, were non-egalitarian. When Wenger, a 27-year veteran of the Teaneck Women’s Tefillah group on the other side of town, approached the board about creating the women’s service, Rabbi Lawrence Zierler saw it as an opportunity to involve a wider cohort.

“On Simchat Torah women should not have to idle while men have aliyot,” Zierler said. “It is an experience in Torah study with an actual sefer Torah. There’s halachic precedence for women dancing with sefrei Torah on Simchat Torah.”

Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which includes most of the area’s Orthodox rabbis, said he was unaware of any women’s Torah groups in RCBC rabbis’ synagogues.
“With women being better educated [than in the past], we need to find an expanded role for them within a halachic context,” Zierler said. “This is very different than an egalitarian approach. It’s not the same as your garden variety aliyah to the Torah but it is a meaningful way for women to study with trope.”

“It’s the Torah of all Jews,” Zierler added.

Nearby Netivot Shalom, which identifies as modern Orthodox, has had a women’s Simchat Torah reading for at least five years.

“It’s wonderful to try to optimize women’s participation within a halachic framework,” said Pamela Scheininger, Netivot Shalom’s president. “I think that’s a great thing to strive for.”

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Deborah Wenger will lead a women’s Torah reading on Simchat Torah at the Jewish Center of Teaneck.

The women’s reading will attract people from outside the shul as well, she said, noting that congregants have come to expect the readings.

“It’s become how we celebrate Simchat Torah and how we celebrate Purim with a women’s Megillah reading,” Scheininger said.

Judy Landau, special projects coordinator at the Union for Traditional Judaism, is one of the organizers of the Teaneck Women’s Tefillah, which started 28 years ago. For more than 25 years the group has met in private homes for hakafot and Torah reading on Simchat Torah. The service typically draws 60 to 70 women.

“We usually have at least two Torah scrolls to read from and anyone who wants an aliyah gets one,” she said, noting that like at the other services they do not do anything that requires a minyan.

Landau was thrilled that Wenger is bringing the experience to the Jewish Center.

“It’s wonderful that there’s something on this side of town,” she said. “There are people who’d love to participate who can’t walk over to the west side of Teaneck. I know Deborah Wenger will do a great job.”

For more information on the Jewish Center’s women’s Simchat Torah reading, call (201) 833-0515. For more about the Teaneck Women’s Tefillah, call (201) 833-9347. For more about Netivot Shalom, call (201) 801-0707.

 
 

UTJ’s Teaneck building to go back on auction block

The Teaneck headquarters of the Union for Traditional Judaism and Institute of Traditional Judaism, which both declared bankruptcy earlier this year, is heading back to auction on Nov. 1.

Real estate development company 333 Realty won a previous auction this summer with a bid of $1.45 million for the property at 811 Palisade Ave. The buyer, however, decided not to move forward at that price, according to Janice Grubin, the bankruptcy attorney assigned to UTJ. A new price of $1.2 million was negotiated, but that has to receive court approval, and in order for that to happen, a new auction must take place.

“We have a responsibility to test the market,” Grubin told The Jewish Standard. “We have to make sure this is the highest and best price, and the only way to do that is to test the market.”

In the meantime, UTJ has submitted a controversial request to U.S. Bankruptcy Court seeking approval to remove a tree on the property, if the new auction winner decides it does not want the tree. That hearing is scheduled for Oct. 18, but regardless of the decision, no action would be taken on the tree without the request of the new auction winner.

“The real estate market is very difficult these days, and the presence of the tree and the congregation that is still on the premises together with the difficulty of the real estate market were among the factors leading to this,” Grubin said.

The congregation refers to Netivot Shalom, a modern Orthodox synagogue of about 80 families that has met in the UTJ building for 10 years.

With the building heading back to auction, Netivot Shalom’s leaders are hopeful that the synagogue can make a successful bid. The congregation’s board sent out letters to its membership last month to help raise at least $400,000, which would allow the synagogue to cover a down payment on a bid.

“Our choice would be to remain in the building,” said Pamela Scheininger, the synagogue’s president. “We’re optimistic that this presents us with an opportunity to do that in a very serious way.”

Netivot Shalom filled out paperwork for the August auction but did not make a bid.

UTJ declared bankruptcy in May and its leaders decided to sell its headquarters to cover its debts. Controversy erupted in July when the organization 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 tree, estimated to be between 200 and 300 years old, is considered the oldest in Teaneck.

Spurred by protests and petitions by eco-activists, the Teaneck Township council took up the issue at its July meeting and considered making a bid on the property to save the tree. The council ultimately decided not to intervene, but UTJ left the tree up through the auction.

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

Perry Rosenstein, the foundation’s president, said he is waiting for a document guaranteeing that the tree will be preserved.

The question remains one of liability, said Rabbi Ronald Price, UTJ’s executive vice president.

“People have expressed their feelings for the tree, and I certainly understand and share appreciation for its beauty, but the risk that comes along with it is significant,” he said.

 
 

Netivot Shalom wins bid for UTJ Teaneck property

Shul to leave centuries-old tree standing

Cong. Netivot Shalom won Monday’s bankruptcy auction for the Teaneck headquarters of the Union for Traditional Judaism and its sister organization, the Institute of Traditional Judaism, ending months of speculation about the fate of the building, the organizations, and the ginormous red oak tree outside.

“We’re happy to report that the court approved the highest and best bid today from Netivot Shalom,” said Janice Grubin, UTJ’s bankruptcy attorney, shortly after the auction.

The Modern Orthodox Netivot Shalom, which has met in the UTJ building on the corner of Palisade Avenue and Cedar Lane for several years, entered a bid of $1.24 million. Real estate developer 333 Realty, which had won an August auction for the property with a bid of $1.45 million, had decided not to move forward at that price, according to court documents. It entered the Nov. 1 auction with a bid of $1.2 million, but would not go higher.

UTJ declared bankruptcy in May and its leaders decided to sell its headquarters to cover its debts. Netivot Shalom and UTJ sparred earlier this year over rent and Netivot Shalom’s right of first refusal if UTJ sought to sell the building. As part of the sale, the parties have agreed to waive all previous claims against each other, Grubin said. A court order memorializing the sale was expected by the end of the week, after which the parties will have 30 days to close on the property.

Netivot Shalom raised $400,000 through a capital campaign to help defray the costs of the purchase. The details of the mortgage have yet to be worked out, said president Pamela Scheininger, but the synagogue will be able to close by the deadline.

“Our membership has been very supportive in all areas,” she said. “This has been a tough time for the shul and the membership has really stood by the shul and now they’re doing so financially.”

Adding to the synagogue’s new sense of permanency, it held an installation Sunday for its new rabbi, Nathaniel Helfgot, who joined the congregation in August. Monday’s auction ended months of wondering if the synagogue would have to find a new home. It will now be able to focus on expanding its programming, particularly with its youth groups, Scheininger said.

“Being able to have this certainty is a tremendous relief to us, and we’re optimistic about the future,” she said.
The sale also puts to rest questions about the fate of a centuries-old red oak tree on the property. Controversy erupted in July when UTJ began work to remove the tree, which 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 tree, estimated to be between 200 and 300 years old, is considered the oldest in Teaneck. The state Division of Parks and Forestry named the tree to its “Big Tree” list last month, recognizing it as the fourth largest red oak in the state.

“We have no plans for its removal,” Scheininger said. “The tree’s important to us and its preservation remains important to us.”

The Teaneck-based Puffin Foundation stepped into the picture in September with an offer to the successful bidder of up to $200,000 to pay for an easement to maintain the tree. Asked if Netivot Shalom would take advantage of the offer, Scheininger said, “We are presently looking into the various options with respect to preserving the tree and will be speaking to the interested parties within the next few days.”

Now that the winning bid has been settled, UTJ and ITJ are beginning to make plans for their future, said Rabbi Ronald Price, UTJ’s executive vice president, who was hopeful that the organizations would have a new home before the as-yet-undetermined closing date. The organizations are negotiating a rental agreement with a new location, he said, although he would not divulge it.

“The moment we knew that the auction was completed, we were meeting with a property owner we will probably be renting from, if all goes well, not too far from where we are now,” he said.

Now that the auction is over, Price is optimistic that UTJ and ITJ will emerge from Chapter 11 by the end of the year. “I believe that we will move on to better things in the future, and I hope the building will serve a valuable purpose (for the new owners),” he said.

 
 

Teaneck tree, shul staying put

Rededication set for venerable oak

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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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