When Teaneck’s giant red oak was cut down in 2013, down with it came centuries of North Jersey history.
The 300-year-old tree had witnessed the Revolutionary War and was alive for every moment of New Jersey’s statehood, but a declaration from an arborist that the tree was sick and potentially dangerous meant that its time overlooking Teaneck would have to come to an end. On June 10, 2013, one of the state’s oldest living things lived no more.
Some wood from the tree was saved from the scrap pile, however, and distributed to people and groups across Teaneck. One piece landed at the Teaneck Public Library. Another went to Saint Anastasia Roman Catholic Church. And a third ended up in the possession of a name known throughout Teaneck and Bergen County: Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck).
According to Weinberg, her involvement with the tree began decades ago, when her late husband Irwin fought to save the tree from being cut down and replaced with a parking lot for a bank.
“My husband singlehandedly, with one other man from Teaneck, beseeched and barraged the Planning Board to turn down the application unless they agreed to keep the tree,” Weinberg said. “So the parking lot was no longer in the sights of the bank … and the tree continued for many years beyond that.”
Irwin Weinberg died some time afterwards, and the tree held a special place in the Weinberg family annals as a symbol of his tenacity.
“In my family, we called it Irwin’s Tree,” Loretta Weinberg said. “That was not an official designation, but we always credited Irwin with saving that tree, who swore if anybody ever tried to take it down he would strap himself there. His life didn’t go as long as the tree.”
In 2010, the tree was threatened once again, this time by a synagogue that owned the lot and intended to sell the land. But in Irwin Weinberg’s absence, a new savior stepped forward in the form of the Puffin Foundation, a philanthropic organization. The foundation agreed to pay the synagogue an easement to keep the tree standing, and the synagogue built a playground in the remainder of the lot.
Even money from the Puffin Foundation, however, could not protect the tree from an examination from an arborist who found that the tree presented a threat to the playground and could not be saved.
“None of us were going to be responsible for working to save a tree that might, God forbid, come down on top of kids,” Weinberg said, describing the moment when she and other activists finally stopped fighting for the tree’s survival. “So the tree was taken down, much to the chagrin of many of us.”
Pieces of the tree were parceled out once it had been cut down, and one landed in the hands of Perry Rosenstein, the founder of the Puffin Foundation, who in turn passed it on to his sister-in-law Miriam Rosenstein.
“My mother is a sculptor,” said former Communication Workers of America State Director Hetty Rosenstein, Miriam’s daughter and Perry’s niece. “She will be 97 years old in November. And so my uncle had a piece of this tree delivered to her house, thinking she’d like to carve a 300-year-old tree.”
Miriam Rosenstein got to work on the ancient piece of wood, shaping it into a piece called “Unfinished Journey” depicting refugees traveling by boat. While she was still creating the sculpture, she ran into Weinberg at a party for Perry Rosenstein’s birthday, and ultimately decided that the piece should go to the senator.
“She knew that that piece of wood meant more to Loretta than it meant to her,” Hetty Rosenstein said. “It meant a lot to her. I mean Loretta – she was overcome.”
Weinberg said that the gift of the sculpture did indeed leave her speechless.
“It was overwhelming, because of my own personal connection to the tree and the way I felt about it,” she said. “The fact that Miriam did what she did and created this beautiful sculpture – it was a surprise to me. I had no idea she was working on it and I had no idea it would be presented to me, but it’s something I’m forever grateful for.”
Several years on, Weinberg still prominently displays the sculpture in her house, and plans on eventually finding it a new home where more people can see and appreciate it.
“Hopefully between [a historic marker placed where the tree once stood] and the library, and hopefully wherever Miriam’s beautiful sculpture will eventually end up, that will cause more discussion about the tree,” Weinberg said.
Hetty Rosenstein added that the sculpture, to her, will always represent a shared belief in community and caring for one another, whether that means helping refugees on a boat or fighting to save a beloved tree.
“The sculpture is beautiful. I mean, it’s wonderful,” she said. “It’s a great New Jersey story.”