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entries tagged with: Union For Traditional Judaism

 

UTJ conference to focus on independent minyans

The Union for Traditional Judaism will hold its annual conference on Sunday at its Teaneck headquarters. The confab, themed “Independence Day: The Independent Minyan/Prayer Group Phenomenon,” will include a panel of speakers discussing the role of the independent minyan in the wider Jewish organization world, what the establishment can learn from them, and vice versa.

“We’re poised between what would be called the establishment of the Jewish world and what would be called the cutting edge of the Jewish world,” said Rabbi Ronald Price, UTJ’s executive vice president. “We thought this would be an appropriate topic.”

According to a 2008 survey of new Jewish organizations, more than 300 new Jewish initiatives were reaching out to some 400,000 Jews. And of those Jews, some 20,000 were involved in independent minyanim or prayer groups, instead of conventional synagogues.

Speakers at Sunday’s conference will include Adena Berkowitz, founding member of Kol HaNeshamah in New York City; Ann E. Shinnar of the steering committee of Teaneck Women’s Tefillah; and Rabbi Chaim Solomon, founding rabbi of Traditional Congregation of Mt. Dora in Florida. Torah scholar Hakham Isaac Sassoon, a teacher at UTJ’s Institute of Traditional Judaism-The Metivta, will begin the conference.

Price noted that the 2008 survey, conducted by Jumpstart, The Natan Fund, and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, found that a large number of small, niche initiatives had emerged across the country and that participants were shunning larger organizations for more intimate settings.

The research findings warned that many of the new start-ups face economic troubles, something Price hopes to address during the conference.

“We will be looking at the subject as objectively as possible,” he said. “Obviously UTJ sees itself as a halachic organization, but participants come from liberal as well as traditional backgrounds. We want to see how [independent minyanim] will become applicable to our work and help in communities.”

Organizers want to present a better understanding of these independent groups and why they are attracting so many, said UTJ special projects coordinator Judy Landau. Each speaker is involved in an independent minyan and will answer questions about that group, from how it is funded to challenges it faces, as well as its vision for the future, ritual format, and space layout.

Landau pointed out that these groups appear to be making better inroads with the 20somethings and 30somethings in the Jewish community — which established synagogues have had trouble with.

“That really is what we want to explore: What makes them attractive and how established synagogues might be able to learn something from them,” Landau said. “We want to let people know why they seem to be successful.”

Last year’s conference focused on child sexual abuse, particularly within the yeshiva world. Other topics have included the idea of the Jewish vote and how UTJ and synagogues can work together.

Past conferences have drawn as many as 300 or as few as 50. Attendance at the conference is unpredictable, Price said, but there is another option for those unable to make it to Teaneck: For the third year in a row, the conference will be Webcast on the Internet. In fact, Price said, much of the interest in the conference is coming from around the country, from California to Florida to Maine. Even at conferences with smaller attendance, UTJ has had twice as many people participating through the Internet, Price said.

“That’s very exciting,” he said.

For more information on the Webcast or the conference, e-mail .(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.

 
 

Parashat Re’eh: Dancing in the rain

_JStandard
Published: 06 August 2010

In a film called “The Recruit,” each young applicant for CIA special operations is asked to respond to a series of rapid-fire questions without taking time to think about them. In this case, the recruit is asked to answer quickly, “Which would you rather do: ride on a train, feel no pain, dance in the rain?” With a slight hesitation he answers, “Dance in the rain.” Then, as he is about to leave the room the recruit turns back to the examiner and says it wasn’t the truth. The real answer is “feel no pain.”

Parashat Re’eh begins with the words “Behold I put before you today blessing and curse. The blessing — that you will listen to the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today. The curse — that you will not listen to the commandments of the Lord your God and you will stray from the path, which I command you today to follow, after other gods you have not known.”

But then God doesn’t tell us what the blessings and curses are, and He doesn’t tell us what to do. He doesn’t tell us which to choose, as he does later in the reading of Netzavim in which we are told to choose life over death. Here, God simply puts before us “blessing and curse” and goes on to other subjects.

Although none of us can know what was going on in Moses’ mind at the time and — even more — what God was thinking, I will offer the possibility that God was giving a description of the blessing and curse to us without our realizing it. Here is blessing if you follow the mitzvot, and here is curse if you don’t and choose to follow other gods. You can have a long life that is a curse and a short one that is a blessing. It will depend on what you choose to fill it with. We are the recruits, and God is saying here are two possibilities, now choose.

How would each of us respond? Feel no pain? Or dance in the rain?

Imagine spending one’s life trying to feel no pain. Sure, no one wants to hurt. No one wants to suffer loss, disappointment, or physical pain. But all too often, in trying to hide from those inevitabilities, we escape into emotional numbness. The person who succeeds in creating a mental and spiritual environment in which he or she feels no pain will never, ever want to dance in the rain.

God puts before us blessing and curse every day of our lives. So how do we know how to choose? How do we know if our choice is the right one? Isn’t it possible that choosing to worship the sun and moon would be more gratifying and tangible than worshipping an invisible deity? Can’t it be said that a life of material gratification is as meaningful as a life of sacrifice and restriction? How do I get to the point that I want to dance in the rain, rather than simply protecting myself from pain? How do I achieve the life of blessing that is supposed to come from following the mitzvot? All God has told me in this parashah is that there is blessing and curse to be had. Re’eh, see, He says, and tishmeun, listen.

And therein is the key. Seeing and hearing properly will let us choose properly. But that begs the question of how.

I’m going to suggest something that may be a little different from answers you may have heard before. The way you achieve proper perspective on blessing and curse is through teshuvah. Not teshuvah as we usually use the term during the month of Elul, in the sense of penitence, apology, and contriteness; I mean teshuvah in the sense of “answer” or response. Teshuvah doesn’t just reform the past, it reframes the past. It changes it into something valuable for the present and future. It’s not just being sorry for mistakes, it’s changing them into something that allows you to let go of the guilt, learn from the experience, and even be thankful for having had the experience, regardless of how painful it might have been.

The Mishnah in Pirke Avot says, “lefum tzara agra” — according to the suffering, the reward. All too often we understand that to mean the more you suffer, the greater your reward in the world to come. But I don’t think that is the only way — or even the best way — to understand that phrase.

“Lefi hatzaar hasechar” means according to the quality with which you invest the suffering that is the level of reward you will receive. If, God forbid, we’ve lost someone we love, suffered a professional setback, or endured physical suffering, and we become immersed in our suffering, then the only reward will be self-pity and depression. That’s not to say that when we’re suffering, we’re not entitled to pity and self-pity to some extent. But sooner or later, if we don’t try to examine our experience from a distance to see if there is something to be learned from it, then we will be destined to simply become bitter.

And even if we are entitled to that bitterness because the tragedy was so huge and unfair and terrible, if we succumb to it, we will not enjoy living anymore. Curse.

When we force ourselves to do as the Mishnah requires — “keshem shemevarkhim al hatovah,” just as we say a blessing, we thank God for the good, so must we do for the bad — that incredibly difficult level is true teshuvah. That is the level of response. That is the place where we are touched by the good as deeply as by the bad, and we find a way to incorporate the experiences to better whatever time God grants us on this earth. It is that level of constant teshuvah — constant sensitivity and response rather than emotional subjugation — that leads people to want to dance in the rain even after they’ve wished they could feel no pain. Blessing.

In living teshuvah, response to the vagaries of life, we may find forgiveness for our failings as well. Not necessarily from others, and maybe not even from God, but from ourselves. How hard it is to accept our failings, reframe them through teshuvah, and go on, having learned from that experience. It is easy to dwell on the failure long after it has been forgotten by others, even by God. Curse. Living a life of teshuvah includes forgiving ourselves so that we can move past the past. Blessing.

As the month of Elul begins and we start our preparation for the yamim noraim, may each of us be blessed to live in constant teshuvah to all life grants us, may we be spared pain, but may our lives and souls be open and full of feeling. May our pain or that of others be reframed in a way that lets us notice and take opportunities to dance with joy in life before God, be it in the rain or otherwise. Blessing.

Amen.

 
 

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.

 
 

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.

 
 

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.”

 
 

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.

 
 

We name the newsmakers of 2010

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A torrential storm brought down trees and power lines across Bergen County in March and claimed the lives of Ovadia Mussaffi and Lawrence Krause.

Sixteen years ago, facing the usual slow week at the first of the secular year, The Jewish Standard created what has turned into an enduring feature: naming the newsmakers of the year just passed (or, in this case, just passing).

This has been a challenging year, punctuated by an earthquake and storms as well as the continuing harsh winds of the recession. But we have also seen the community rising to meet those challenges in creative as well as tried-and-true ways.

We continue in what has become a tradition by stating our standards:

What makes a newsmaker? Philanthropy? Maybe, but also creative use of resources. Tragedy? Yes, but also survival. Personal accomplishments? Yes, but also efforts on behalf of others. Scholarship? Yes, but also originality. Political daring? Yes, but also political dealing.

The Standard, all those years ago, seeking not to judge but to inform, established a set of criteria, any one of which might land someone on the list.

• First, newsmakers must come from or have links to this region and have done something newsworthy, for good or ill.

• Second, they may have strongly stirred the community’s interest and/or emotions.

• Third, they may have brought an issue to the public’s attention.

• Fourth, they may have compelled or challenged the public to re-examine its beliefs and/or behavior.

• Fifth, they may have prompted a course of action.

This year, we’ve enlarged our scope beyond the Jewish community. We award the top spot on the list to the “heroes of Haiti,” local doctors, Jewish or not, who gave their time and expertise in the devastation following the January earthquake there.

We name and celebrate those doctors whose efforts we’ve chronicled: Alan Gwertzman, Timothy Finley, Howard Zucker, Joshua Hyman, and Thomas Bojko. (Many of these are connected to Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck and Englewood Hospital and Medical Center.)

We also cite the many unnamed medical personnel from this area who have worked to heal the still-wounded nation and its people. (And we note that Israel has maintained a virtually constant medical presence in Haiti and that Teaneck attorney Sam Davis, the founding director of Burn Advocates Network, expanded its reach, starting a physical and occupational therapy clinic there as well as arranging for medical equipment and recruiting doctors to man the clinic.)

Libya is again cracking our newsmakers list. The African country burst onto the list in 2009 when its leader, Muammar Kaddafi, was reportedly planning to stay at a Libya-owned mansion in Englewood during the opening of the U.N. General Assembly. After protests led by the mansion’s neighbor, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Kaddafi announced he would stay in New York. Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations, however, soon moved in.

In 2010, Libya made the list again, first because of its election to the U.N. Human Rights Council, and second because of the controversy surrounding Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the sole conspirator convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which resulted in the deaths of 278 people, including 38 from New Jersey. He was released from prison last year on humanitarian grounds because doctors estimated he had only months to live after being diagnosed with stomach cancer. He has outlived those expectations, angering advocates of the Lockerbie victims who alleged that Great Britain freed al-Megrahi because of pressure from BP for an oil deal.

Recently released cables from WikiLeaks appeared to confirm suspicions that Libya had threatened Great Britain economically if Scotland did not release al-Megrahi.

New Jersey’s U.S. senators, Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, have repeatedly called for investigations into the circumstances of al-Megrahi’s release. With the WikiLeaks revelation, the issue is more than likely to continue into 2011.

Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9), who sits on three appropriations subcommittees, has been a staunch ally of Israel in the House of Representatives. A former chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the precursor to UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, Rothman has always been vocal about his support for the Jewish state, which has translated into numerous votes for military appropriations for Israel.

After the Mavi Marmara affair in June, Rothman came out firmly in support of Israel’s actions, telling the Standard that, “There is some regret over the loss of life, notwithstanding the fact that those killed were almost certainly armed and well-trained jihadists bent on provoking Israel’s violent reaction and creating an international episode.”

Rothman also got into a proverbial spitting match earlier this year with Boteach, who alleged that the congressman did not do enough to keep the Libyan U.N. ambassador out of the mansion next to Boteach’s home. Rothman maintained that the original agreement from the 1980s, when Libya bought the mansion and Rothman was mayor of Englewood, decreed that the U.N. ambassador could use the home, although details were murky. This policy, Rothman said, had been agreed to by the State Department and there was therefore nothing he or the United States could do — particularly since Libya and the United States have since normalized relations — to prevent the ambassador from using the house.

Boteach also accused Rothman of being an apologist for President Obama’s policies, which many have regarded as being not in Israel’s favor. Rothman has on several occasions praised Obama for being what he called the most supportive president of military cooperation with Israel in U.S. history.

Earlier this year, the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee appropriated $217.7 million — the highest amount on record, according to Washington sources — in funding for joint U.S.-Israel missile defense programs, and according to Rothman, the Defense Subcommittee has allocated more than $750 million in federal funds for the Arrow and David’s Sling anti-missile systems since 2007.

Recently, Rothman voted for the inclusion of more than $200 million for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense program in a congressional spending bill. The funds were later removed by the Senate (see story, page 8).

Rothman was also a signatory to a letter to Obama calling for clemency for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. In November’s elections, Rothman won his eighth term in the House.

The weather made news this year. In March, a storm we called “an ill wind” left thousands of people without power and toppled trees. Two Teaneck men, Ovadia Mussaffi, 54, and Lawrence Krause, 49, were killed by a falling tree as they walked home from Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic congregation, after Shabbat. (The shul, by the way, which meets in a private home, broke ground for a building in November.) Both men were described as friendly, sweet, and generous. Their friends and family — indeed, the whole community — were devastated by the loss.

The Standard asked a number of local rabbis to share their thoughts about the tragedy. For their answers, go to www.jstandard.com/index.php/content/item/12658.

Of local Jewish institutions, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly was hardest hit by the storm and had to close, but it was up and running in a few days. People thronged it, said its executive director, Avi Lewinson, because they had “cabin fever and wanted to be able to do something.”

And, of course, we’ve all been affected by this weekend’s blizzard. All the schools, day and public, were closed on Monday, as were many, if not most, offices. As of Tuesday, we were still digging out from under mountains of snow.

The New Jersey Legislature passed a bill in January that toughened fines for drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians. The bill, signed by Gov. Jon Corzine in one of his final acts in office, was spurred by the crusade for pedestrian safety, and against drivers who talk on their cell phones, of Andrea DeVries of Paramus, whose son, Daniel, was killed in a pedestrian crosswalk on Mother’s Day 2008 by a driver who, witnesses said, was talking on his cell phone.

During a legislative breakfast at DeVries’ synagogue, Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, she met Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-37), who invited her to testify before the Assembly.

“It made that bill [to toughen fines] come to life [and made us understand] that we had to do something more, that this is a problem,” Wagner said of the testimony after Corzine signed the bill into law. “[DeVries] has so much courage to tell this story and to repeat this story and to try to promote pedestrian safety.”

The new law increases the fine of $100 to $500 if a victim is seriously injured as a result of the driver’s failure to yield. It also increases the maximum jail time from 15 to 25 days.

For DeVries, though, the new bill does not go far enough. She wants to see mandatory drug and alcohol testing and a check of cell-phone records for every driver who kills a pedestrian. This law, she told the Standard, is just “a baby step.”

At the corner of Palisade Avenue and Cedar Lane in Teaneck stands a tree that, at more than 80 feet, is the fourth largest red oak in the state, according to the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry. That tree, which is also estimated to be more than 200 years old, was at the center of a summer fight between the Union for Traditional Judaism and preservationists.

The tree sits on the corner of the property belonging to the UTJ, which declared bankruptcy earlier this year. In July, UTJ leaders decided to remove the tree, citing safety concerns that were corroborated by an arborist the union had hired. Protests erupted around town as environmentalists, as well as state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), sought to preserve the tree; two other arborists hired by Teaneck reported that the tree could, in fact, be preserved.

The matter soon ended up before the Teaneck Township Council, where protesters vainly demanded that the township block the tree’s removal by buying the property. Protesters alleged that UTJ wanted to tear down the tree only to increase the value of the land, while UTJ’s leaders and bankruptcy attorney argued that safety of passersby was the paramount concern.

In August, 333 Realty, a real estate development agency, won a bankruptcy auction for the property for $1.4 million. The company soon rescinded its original offer, in light of publicity surrounding the tree, and negotiated a lower price with UTJ. Before the bankruptcy court could approve the new price, however, the property legally had to go back to auction.

The Puffin Foundation also stepped into the picture with an offer of a $200,000 grant to help the new property owners preserve the tree. But 333 Realty would not exceed its new offer of $1.2 million and Netivot Shalom, a modern Orthodox congregation that meets in the UTJ building, won the October auction.

UTJ and its sister organization, the Institution of Traditional Judaism, have since moved to a new location on American Legion Drive in Teaneck, while Netivot Shalom plans to expand its programming in the building and preserve the tree.

Rabbi Jack Bemporad, a frequent Jewish Standard newsmaker, made this year’s list by bringing a group of imams and other U.S. Muslim leaders to concentration camp sites.

An Englewood resident who is director of the Carlstadt-based Center for Interreligious Understanding, Bemporad called the Aug. 7 to 11 trip to Auschwitz in Poland and Dachau in Germany “a breakthrough in many respects, because … we took imams like [Yasir] Qadhi, for example,” who 10 years ago called the Holocaust a hoax. (Bemporad led the trip, which was sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, with Prof. Marshall Breger of the Catholic University of America.)

“The main point,” he said, “is that … they are using this experience in their services and talking to their people — that’s talking about tens of thousands of people.” He added, “They want Jews to speak in mosques about this reality so they can unite with us to condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms.”

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot has very specific ideas about how the Jewish community should treat people who are homosexual. In July, he released his “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community,” which called for compassion and respect. The statement has received more than 140 signatures from Orthodox rabbis, educators, and mental health professionals from around North America, including several from North Jersey.

“For years we have spoken with other friends in the rabbinate and in Jewish education about the growing recognition that they have had students who later came out as homosexuals,” Helfgot told the Standard in July. “We also have had friends, here and there, who came out and know parents who struggle with this with their children.”

“We kicked around the reality of this and the question of what the community, synagogue, and schools should be doing to affirm what we believe in terms of Jewish law [while also asking] ‘Is there a place for these people to be within our community? Is it simply either/or?’”

According to the statement’s preamble, “Embarrassing, harassing, or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.

“The question of whether sexual orientation is primarily genetic, or rather environmentally generated, is irrelevant to our obligation to treat human beings with same-sex attractions and orientations with dignity and respect.

“We affirm the religious right of those with a homosexual orientation to reject therapeutic approaches they reasonably see as useless or dangerous.”

Helfgot is now religious leader of Cong. Netivot Shalom in Teaneck.

To read the full statement, visit www.jstandard.com/index.php/content/item/14319.

Since the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, the issue of bullying has grabbed headlines. After hearing testimony from bullying victims, the New Jersey Legislature recently passed the so-called Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, which will tighten penalties for bullies in public schools, require better reporting of bullying in public schools, and, its sponsors hoped, deal a massive blow to the entire bullying phenomenon in the school system.

State. Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37) spearheaded the legislation in the Senate, while Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37) championed it in the Assembly. Etzion Neuer, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey office, helped arrange some of the testimony that ultimately convinced legislators to pass the bill.

Neuer was also a member of the New Jersey Commission on Bullying in the Schools, whose 2009 report provided the impetus for the new legislation.

While the bill was moving forward before Clementi’s death, the incident reinforced for some legislators why such legislation was needed.

Parents of day-school students continue to gripe about the high bills they must pay for their children to get private Jewish and secular education. These bills can reach higher than $50,000 per student, not including extra fees, building funds, and books. In 2009, a group of local rabbis, educators, and parents created Jewish Education for Generations to tackle the so-called tuition crisis. Its first project, Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, aka the kehilla fund, has in its second year distributed hundreds of thousands of scholarship dollars to eight area day schools, Orthodox and Conservative, based on student populations from within the catchment area of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

According to the organization’s leaders, NNJKIDS’ mission is to change the communal mindset by shifting the burden of tuition from the parents to the community.

In 2009 the kehillah fund distributed almost $200,000 to the schools and in 2010, fund-raisers collected and distributed $525,000. JEFG leaders declared May to be NNJKIDS Month and pushed collections in Jewish businesses throughout the area, and organizers are planning to hold another NNJKIDS Month in May or June.

NNJKIDS has formed partnerships with the Avi Chai Foundation, Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, UJA-NNJ, and northern New Jersey Orthodox and Conservative synagogues.

“NNJKIDS was never meant just to raise money,” said Gershon Distenfeld, NNJKIDS’ treasurer. “It’s about a way to get the schools together to pursue a range of initiatives, and that work continues.”

The distributions remain small, but North Jersey’s day schools reported that tuition rates for the 2010-11 school year were mitigated by at least $200 per student because of the donations.

For information about the fund, visit www.nnjkids.org.

So many young people in this community did noteworthy things this year — including winning prestigious contests and organizing drives for this or that cause — that it is impossible to list them all. (As Garrison Keillor says of the mythical Lake Wobegon, “All the children are above average.”) But the deeds of two, in particular, fit criterion No. 5: “They may have prompted a course of action”: In October, 21-year-old Ari Sapin donated bone marrow to a 29-year-old man with leukemia, a selfless act that may inspire others to sign up for the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation (http://www.giftoflife.org).

Another Ari, Ari Hagler of Bergenfield, used his Dec. 10 bar mitzvah to launch Shabbat Gilad as a way to call attention to the continuing plight of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Close to 150 shuls, schools, youth groups, and Jewish centers participated from all over the United States as well as from Israel, Canada, and Australia. For the list of participants, go to www.shabbatgilad.com. Let’s hope that Shalit will be freed in 2011 and there’ll be no need to name another Shabbat for him.

The Jewish Standard itself made news in 2010, sparked by a same-sex marriage announcement. After conversations with some members of the community who strongly opposed the move, the paper issued an apology and pledged not to publish such announcements again.

But then a media deluge began — people from near and far wrote and called in support of or against such announcements, and the paper has been revisiting its policy. We have published thoughtful op-ed pieces on same-sex marriage from across the Jewish spectrum and have met with leading representatives of communal organizations such as the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which is Orthodox; the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, which is composed of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis; and with Jewish Queer Youth, a gay Orthodox group.

This has indeed been a “teachable moment,” and people across the area have been listening and talking to one another as never before about what it really means to be a diverse Jewish community. We have been listening as well, and will continue searching for a way to serve all segments of our community until we get it right.

 
 

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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