With Sauna ‘Secret’ Out, Riverdale Shul Faces Tough Choice

By Gary Rosenblatt
Jewish Week
June 3, 2015

Three years ago several prominent members of the Riverdale Jewish Center (RJC), the 700-member Modern Orthodox congregation, met privately with their longtime rabbi, Jonathan Rosenblatt, and offered to arrange a generous buyout for him. They told him that the persistent rumors about his allegedly inappropriate behavior with boys and young men were bound to become public at some point and it would be in his and his family’s best interest, and for the congregation as well, if he accepted an offer to resign quietly.

If he didn’t, he was told, “this could all end badly,” according to a member of the congregation with knowledge of the meeting.

“It was not meant as a threat, but rather that it would hit the press eventually and no one would see things as he did,” the person explained this weekend.

“Unfortunately, he refused, and now it’s all out there,” the person said, referring to the thorough New York Times May 31 report on Rabbi Rosenblatt’s “unusual” behavior that included inviting young men to discuss personal matters while sitting naked in the sauna with him.

The rabbi insisted, in the meeting, that he had done nothing wrong and had complied with previous requests from shul officials that he limit his gym invitations to young men rather than boys. His wife, Tzipporah, an attorney, who was present at the meeting, was said to have warned about a possible legal case if RJC took action against the rabbi based on illegal touching.

The synagogue board met for more than four hours Monday night, debating next steps. While nothing was resolved regarding the fate of the rabbi, according to interviews with those in attendance, the board agreed to hire a public relations firm. For now there is an air of sadness, frustration and confusion among congregants, some of whom, including supporters, are hoping the rabbi will resign and spare them more public scrutiny. Others seem prepared to rally around the rabbi and hope the negative attention will soon blow over. And it appears the rabbi is not prepared to step down.

In response to a Jewish Week request this week for an interview, he sent a brief “official” statement through his “adviser,” Adam Friedman. It does not defend against or even mention the specific accusations against him, but rather frames the controversy as one over ideology.

Rabbi Rosenblatt wrote that as a rabbi he has served “with devotion, guided by high standards — religious and professional.

“My career in leadership has not been without ideological contentiousness,” he continued. “There is significant reason to believe that the attack on my reputation is being promoted by those whose real attack is on my beliefs and principles. The respected rabbi of an important congregation would, for some, represent a significant trophy in the predatory quest to discredit his ideas and, possibly, an opportunity to change the nature of the community he leads.”

But those close to the situation see the response as an attempt to divert attention away from the rabbi’s behavior with young men. And there is puzzlement over his reference to an “ideological” struggle, since Rabbi Rosenblatt is seen as a centrist within Modern Orthodoxy.

“Bottom line, he had a chance to avoid embarrassment for himself, his family and the shul,” said the person who knew of the settlement offer. “But he brought this on himself.”

Open Secret

For most of the rabbi’s more than three decades at RJC, his habit of inviting young men to play squash or racquetball, followed by a shower and sauna with them, was an open secret in the congregation.

“It was a joke among the teenage boys and young men,” one congregant recalled. “We’d ask each other, ‘did you go to the shvitz with the rabbi?’”

But times have changed, as have societal norms. There is more awareness of and less tolerance for behavior viewed as sexually predatory, even if it is not invasive — especially when initiated by figures of authority and spiritual leaders.

Rabbi Rosenblatt (no relation to this reporter) is the scion of a prominent family — his great-grandfather was famed cantor Yossele Rosenblatt and his grandfather, Samuel Rosenblatt, was the rabbi of a major Baltimore synagogue for more than 50 years. Even some congregants urging for his resignation now note that he is a man of many talents and attributes — a brilliant scholar of English literature as well as Judaic texts, with a gift for eloquent oratory, a strong voice for Modern Orthodoxy when many of his colleagues have moved to the right, and a caring and compassionate pastor, always there for families in times of need.

But even some of his biggest defenders say his lack of self-awareness, or arrogance, in denying the disturbing quality of his behavior, and his inability or unwillingness to curb it, contributed mightily to his current difficulties.

“He has this blind spot,” said one RJC member of several decades. “He thought he could get away with this behavior.”

Samuel Klagsbrun, a prominent local psychiatrist, described Rabbi Rosenblatt’s behavior as “a classic case of disassociation, where one separates the reality of his actions from his belief system.” It makes for a particularly strong divide when the person is a public figure with a reputation for good works, said Klagsbrun, who noted that he does not know Rabbi Rosenblatt.

“If he was warned and continued his actions — a rabbi risking being chastised — it’s obvious that his need for that connection with the young people was significant,” he added.

But Debbie Jonas, an RJC member and mother of Rabbi Davidi Jonas, who grew up in Riverdale, said her son was one of many young teenagers who went to the gym with the rabbi, and that “it was like any health club or locker room,” with people wrapped in towels. Jonas was one of several people that Rabbi Rosenblatt’s adviser, Adam Friedman, recommended The Jewish Week contact for comment. She said the rabbi “takes himself seriously as a mentor, and I give him tremendous credit for my Davidi’s spiritual development.” And she said that more than two dozen rabbis who served as rabbinic interns at RJC were sending letters to the shul in support of Rabbi Rosenblatt.

One member of the congregation for more than 20 years said that sitting through services at RJC this past Shabbat was a particularly painful experience.

“Nothing was said publicly” about the Times article, he said, noting that in Rabbi Rosenblatt’s absence, there was an expectation that the president or other official would address the problem from the pulpit. But that did not occur. (Rabbi Rosenblatt is nearing the end of a six-month sabbatical, spending much of his time in Boston and doing research at Harvard University.)

On Shabbat morning there was much private discussion among fellow worshippers, said the congregant, who like more than a dozen people interviewed for this article, requested anonymity because of personal connections to the synagogue.

The conversation ranged from labeling the Times story “character assassination” to hopes that the rabbi step down and spare the synagogue further shame, to talk of preparing for a difficult, and perhaps legal, battle over the rabbi’s future.

‘Unanswered Questions’

The publicity over Rabbi Rosenblatt comes at a difficult time for RJC, which has lost some of the energy, and membership, it once had and is looking to revitalize itself. It appears that older members of the synagogue, who have been the beneficiary for decades of Rabbi Rosenblatt’s soaring sermons, thoughtful teachings and compassionate pastoral care, are more inclined to have the rabbi stay on than younger members who have reacted most critically to the allegations, perhaps envisioning their sons being at risk of the rabbi’s outreach.

It should also be noted that over the years, some members left RJC for other synagogues. So those who stayed may have made their peace with the rabbi’s questionable behavior.

One young professional, an RJC member for less than two years, said he was shocked by the revelations in the Times article and was particularly upset at the synagogue’s lay leadership’s refusal to comment publicly on Shabbat.

“People are confused and upset,” he said. “There are so many unanswered questions.”

Chief among them, particularly for outsiders, is how could the congregation’s lay leaders have allowed the rabbi to remain in his position of authority decades after learning of his sauna sessions with boys and young men?

Several former leaders acknowledged that, as one said, “It’s easy to look back now” and recognize that mistakes were made in handling the situation. But he stressed that it was more complicated than it appears.

He and others interviewed noted that the rabbi performed his primary congregational responsibilities masterfully. The complaints came most directly from Sura Jeselsohn, a member whose zealous pursuit of this case led some to describe her as the rabbi’s Javert, a reference to the “Les Miserables” villain who devoted his life to tracking down a minor thief.

“In a bizarre way she helped the rabbi’s case” because she was seen as inordinately devoted to bringing him down, one member observed.

There were never reported allegations of sexual touching or criminal complaints, and there were practical concerns that any attempt to force the rabbi out could result in a painful legal suit.

Perhaps most significant is the serious confusion over the “gray area” of the rabbi’s actions — not illegal but widely considered inappropriate — that led feelings of loyalty toward him to trump taking more forceful action.

“People would say ‘I support the rabbi, but I wouldn’t let my son go to the shvitz with him,’” one congregant noted. “Isn’t that crazy?”

In a sense, the rabbi’s insistence that none of his behavior was problematic led to the congregation’s “gift” of allowing it to continue.

The rabbi’s critics tend to view the situation in a more direct way — that he had a problem, whether he acknowledged it or not, and that he had compromised his ability to serve his community.

Those who informed the rabbi that their sons were reluctant to accept his gym invitations were told that the problem was their sons’, not his.

Going Public

What changed the dynamic was that Yehuda Kurtzer, who heads the American branch of the Shalom Hartman Institute, went to The New York Times some months ago with his story. He recounted how as a Columbia University student at 19, he was “horrified and embarrassed” when the rabbi, unclothed, invited him into the sauna.

After Rabbi Rosenblatt was invited to speak to the students at the SAR Academy in Riverdale last fall, Kurtzer, whose young son attends the school, complained to the principal. He later wrote of his concerns about Rabbi Rosenblatt on a listserv of alumni of Wexner Foundation programs. That prompted a response from other participants with similar stories of their encounters with the rabbi going back a number of years, and the campaign took on renewed urgency.

[The Jewish Week has made reference to the rabbi’s unusual behavior several times over the last 15 years, without naming him. Most recently, in January 2013, this reporter’s column posed this question: “What, if anything, should be done about a synagogue rabbi who has a long history of inviting teenage boys and young men in their 20s to go to the gym with him, shower together, and share intimate talk in the sauna, making at least some of them feel deeply uncomfortable? No allegations have come to light about the rabbi crossing the line, but is this normal socializing or inappropriate behavior?”

The reason for not naming Rabbi Rosenblatt, or writing a full story, was that none of the young men who made allegations against him were willing to speak “on the record,” for attribution. Kurtzer is the first and only to do so.]

Lessons Learned?

Some stories about rabbinic impropriety are black and white, from physical and sexual abuse to spying on women in a state of undress. This one is not, and it is difficult to find the right words even to describe Rabbi Rosenblatt’s behavior with young men. The same invitation to play squash, shower and talk in the sauna resulted in some young men bonding with the rabbi and expressing gratitude for a mentoring relationship; others called it “predatory” and “outrageous.” The New York Times labeled it “unusual.”

Confusion abounds as well in the congregants’ range of responses. Some knew of his behavior for decades and ask now, “So what’s the big news?” Others are upset that board leaders took matters into their own hands, seeking to monitor the rabbi’s interactions with young men without informing the congregation at large.

Until our rabbinic organizations and synagogues cede power to outside experts to monitor the behavior of rabbis, the pattern will continue: peers will take precedence over possible victims. Surely we must recognize by now that rabbis, like everyone else, can have both inspiring and harmful traits. Those characteristics are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they make us human. So it’s possible that the same rabbi who shows great compassion and sensitivity to some can also present a threat to others.

It’s up to the leaders, members and rabbi of RJC to resolve this issue in a way that is dignified and fair. But it’s too late to do it quietly, under the radar. They had that chance decades ago, but no longer.



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