NY Jewish Scene Abuzz Amid Resignation of Bronx "Sauna" Rabbi
By Anthony Marandetto
March 9, 2016
Jonathan Rosenblatt, the modern Orthodox rabbi who found himself at the center of a controversial firestorm at the Riverdale synagogue that he has led for decades, has now announced that he will be stepping down from his post as spiritual leader.
The prominent rabbi of the Riverdale Jewish Center drew harsh rebuke from congregants for taking boys as young as 12 years of age along with young men to join him in naked sauna visits. Reports indicate that during the 1980s and 90s, Rosenblatt, now 59, would engage his young charges in deep discussions about their lives and faith in G-d. The sauna sessions would generally take place after playing squash in the synagogue gym. Rosenblatt would shower with the boys and then enter the sauna or hot tub. While nothing sexually untoward occurred, a 2015 article in the New York Times renewed an ongoing debate as to whether his conduct was appropriate as several of the boys in question, who are now in their 40s had said that Rosenblatt made them feel uncomfortable by looking at their naked bodies and commenting on them.
In 2011, Rosenblatt reached an agreement with the Rabbinical Council of America, which oversees American Orthodox rabbis, to stop taking congregants to the sauna altogether.
As the ire of the congregation grew, Rabbi Rosenblatt issued an apology to the membership in June of 2015 and said that he intended to stay on as leader of the synagogue.
“This is a crisis created by my own lapses of judgment,” Rosenblatt said, according to a recording of the speech transcribed by a synagogue member and cited in the Times. “I have brought pain to people, shame to my family and I have caused a desecration of the divine name.”
It was then that a rift of sorts was created between members of the synagogue who wanted to oust the tenured rabbi and those leaders of the synagogue board of directors who opted to keep the rabbi aboard.
The RJC’s board of directors voted 34-8 to seek a financial settlement to motivate Rosenblatt to resign his pulpit. But Rosenblatt vowed to stay on, saying that removing him from his position would be a “disproportionate” response. Hundreds of congregants signed a petition backing the rabbi, while some signed a competing petition calling on him to resign.
Two weeks ago, however, Rabbi Rosenblatt made the decision to resign his position and according to his legal counsel, Meyer G. Koplow, he was tendering his resignation because “he would like to see the community grow and he thinks in order for that to happen it needs a fresh start, and this is intended to make that possible.”
According to a report in the New York Times, celebrated criminal attorney Benjamin Brafman, who is also representing Rabbi Rosenblatt said that his client had made a “purely voluntary” decision and that he had approached the board rather than the other way around.
Yehuda Kurtzer, the only man mentioned in the New York Times article who had experienced an invitation from Rosenblatt to join him in the sauna had expressed outrage over the RJC’s passivity in terminating Rosenblatt from his position.
In an e-mail sent to congregants two weeks ago, synagogue president Samson Fine wrote:
"Rabbi Rosenblatt has today informed RJC's leadership that he intends to step aside from the Senior Rabbinate of the RJC. The Shul's Board of Trustees was informed at this evening's Board meeting and we anticipate discussing transition details with the Board in the next two weeks.
"Samson Fine, President"
Mr. Koplow said the rabbi was willing to retain a role at the synagogue if the board wanted that. According to a report in the NYT Rosenblatt’s salary generally runs between $200,000 and $250,000 a year. His contract ends in August of 2018, according to a former synagogue employee who had spoken with the Times on the condition of anonymity.