July 18, 2024
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Fair Lawn Street Renaming Honors Sam Racenstein, z”l

This past Sunday, a very special ceremony was held in the borough of Fair Lawn to temporarily rename the northwest section of the Saddle River Road and Fair Lawn Avenue intersection after longtime resident Sam Racenstein, z”l.

Over 100 people attended the ceremony including Sam’s wife and children, Assemblywoman Lisa Swain, former Fair Lawn Mayor John Cosgrove and Councilwoman Gail Rottenstrich.

The ceremony began with opening remarks by Rabbi Ely Shestack of Congregation Ahavath Achim, the synagogue where Sam and his wife, Shelly, were members. His remarks were followed by speeches from former Mayor Cosgrove and Assemblywoman Swain, who is credited with being instrumental in bringing this project to fruition and making the intersection safer for residents to cross the street, especially on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

Swain then presented Shelly Racenstein with a proclamation from the state of New Jersey posthumously thanking Sam for his years of service to the community and always advocating for the safety and well-being of its residents.

Deputy Mayor Christina Cutrone awarded Sam Racenstein, z”l, with an additional proclamation from the Borough of Fair Lawn, thanking him and temporarily renaming the intersection in his honor. Mayor Cosgrove was honored with unveiling the new street sign, Racenstein Way, to a round of applause from the attendees and effectively “giving credit due where credit belongs,” according to Ben Lang, himself a key player in this safety initiative

Rottenstrich, a fierce advocate for the project who ran Sunday’s program, also thanked Fair Lawn resident Ben Lang for his “persistent, but in a kind way” dedication in working on this project for the past eight years. He too was presented with his own proclamation and an official “Thank You” from the Borough of Fair Lawn.

Cosgrove, being the tallest, unveiled the sign to an enthusiastic and appreciative round of applause from the Fair Lawn residents.

Since it is a county road, permission was given to temporarily put up a sign for two months. allowing for a symbolic renaming of the street. After two months, the sign will be presented to the Racenstein family to keep at another ceremony.

But getting to this day took a lot of effort and many many years.

The intersection had always been notoriously dangerous, and residents had been expressing their concerns for years. This very busy intersection that also includes three bus stops has seen more accidents—both pedestrian and automobile—than any other intersection in the entire town. Since the intersection is classified as a county road, as opposed to a town road, getting an agency involved to make the necessary improvements posed its own unique set of challenges and additional bureaucratic red tape.

Sam Racenstein knew several people who were involved in serious accidents at the intersection, often as they walked to and from shul. One of those people included his own wife, Shelly. On Rosh Hashanah in 2011, Shelly was struck by a car while she was attempting to cross the intersection, sustaining injuries from which she still suffers today. It was that pivotal moment that sent Sam Racenstein into action and set him on a path into joining Fair Lawn’s zoning board and, in the process, hopefully solving this ever perilous safety issue once and for all.

As a dedicated and loyal resident of Fair Lawn, Sam Racentsein always felt a responsibility to help make Fair Lawn a safer place. He felt that it wasn’t enough to send letters. The only real way to effect change—and fast—was to join the zoning board. So he made the decision to do exactly that.

But that decision came with its own set of obstacles. In order to join a town’s zoning board, one must take a comprehensive training course and pass a difficult exam. Unfortunately, all those courses and exams were given on Saturdays. Sam did, however, manage to find a facility that was offering the course on Sundays. The only problem was that this facility was in South Jersey, which meant he spent many Sundays driving two hours there and back.

Of course, he passed the exam and joined the zoning board in 2012, serving his community and attending meetings that often lasted well past midnight. He eventually resigned in 2019 due to illness.

In 2013, Sam’s friend and fellow Ahavath Achim member Ben Lang also went to town officials to see what he could do to make the intersection safer. “I was the one to write letters. Sam was the one to be active and join the zoning board. So I was writing letters to the board. I was attending council meetings.”

Often, when the two friends would meet up in shul they would joke about the progress, or lack thereof, of their initiative. Sam would ask Ben how things were coming along. “And I would share with him the most recent red-tape problems. And being a little frustrated I would say, ‘It’s never going to be finished in our lifetime’,” Ben remembered.

But Sam, ever the optimist, always encouraged Ben to keep at it because he truly believed it would eventually get done. And he was right.

“In 2013 I was able to get both an ordinance and a resolution passed,” Ben proudly said. The ordinance was “no right turn on red” in all four directions which was one way to start helping to make the intersection safer. The second was a resolution from the town of Fair Lawn requesting officials in Bergen County to immediately begin improvements on making the intersection safer. And thus the process began in earnest.

Finally, on January 22, 2021 Sam received a letter from Fair Lawn Councilmember Gail Roddenstritch informing him that construction to improve the intersection would commence on March 15 with a completion date by September 15. The letter from the Bergen County Department of Planning and Engineering authorizing the project, was dated January 21, 2021.

January 21, 2021, might seem like an insignificant date to anybody else. But for those who knew Sam Racenstein, that day held extraordinary meaning: It was the date of his funeral.

Ben replied to Gail’s email saying, “Isn’t it ironic that Bergen County finally authorized these concrete plans—no pun intended—on the same date of Sam Racenstein’s funeral?” It was then that Ben was struck with inspiration: to rename the intersection Racenstein Way because “maybe he gave a little nudge up in Heaven since he couldn’t finish his work down here on earth, but maybe he was up there in Heaven working for us and he is smiling down on us from up above.”

Ben presented this idea at a council meeting and the members unanimously agreed, knowing how Sam was always advocating for the people of Fair Lawn and how concerned he was for their safety.

The sign will remain at its current location for two months, at which point it will be taken down and presented to Sam Racenstein’s family for them to keep. But the new lights and signs will forever serve both as a symbolic reminder and a moving tribute to a man who dedicated his time and efforts to the safety and well-being of his friends and neighbors.

By Ronit Mershon

 

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