Electronic ‘paper Chase’ over Rabbi Rosenblatt’s Future

By Phil Jacobs
Jewish Link
June 11, 2015

It’s been a week of emails, petitions, articles, comments and more emails.

Riverdale Jewish Center members have experienced any number of statements concerning Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt and his very future as the shul’s spiritual leader.

First came the May 31 New York Times article covering the rabbi’s practice of playing squash, showering and then sitting in the sauna with youths to young men over the years.

RJC’s Executive Committee released a letter June 2 to its membership directed at the Times article.

“As you know, Rabbi Rosenblatt is a highly respected member of the community who has given decades of devoted service to the Riverdale Jewish Center and its members,” reads a paragraph from the statement. “That said, we take any allegations of impropriety very seriously. Years ago when RJC leadership heard rumors about the Rabbi’s alleged interactions surrounding athletic activities, the details were assessed and no evidence of misconduct was found. In order to avoid even the appearance of impropriety as to such activities, in the 2011 time frame the Rabbinical Council of America issued explicit guidelines regarding participation in athletic activities by clergy. The RJC has followed those guidelines.

“It bears emphasis that as far as we are aware, Rabbi Rosenblatt has fully complied with the guidelines, and there is nothing in The New York Times article that indicates otherwise. Significantly, if we ever saw evidence to the contrary, we would of course take appropriate measures.”

Two days later it was Rabbi Rosenblatt writing to the congregation saying that “I deeply regret the humiliation these articles have caused to me, my family, my friends and to my beloved Riverdale Jewish Center, a congregation I have profoundly served for almost 30 years. I also deeply regret if my conduct at any time inadvertently offended anyone during my many years of service. I want to assure you, however, that it was never my intention to cause any harm, nor did I ever do anything that was unlawful. If any of you feel that my behavior, even if innocent, was inappropriate, I apologize to those affected.”

Five days after that, the Executive Committee of the Riverdale Jewish Center reported on its website its progress on the matter of Rabbi Rosenblatt’s very future with the shul.

“We discussed the ongoing challenges and the profound impact on our shul community. The Board ultimately concluded that, in view of all these circumstances, the best course of action would be to achieve an amicable resolution with Rabbi Rosenblatt, and we are constructively engaged in discussions to that end.”

Benjamin Brafman, the rabbi’s attorney, said in an email to the Jewish Link: “We are confident that the congregation and Rabbi Rosenblatt will reach a dignified and very fair agreement in the near future.”

In the meantime, there were at least two letters in defense of the rabbi and one wanting him out sent to the Executive Committee.

The letter seeking his ouster and signed by 44 names wrote that the rabbi “is unfortunately but irrevocably unable to lead our community.”

But that petition was met with two others supporting the rabbi.

A member, who asked to remain anonymous, wrote a confidential letter to the RJC Executive Committee that it received the evening of its recent meeting. The letter was signed by 67 members, all of whom had played squash, showered and went into the sauna with the rabbi.

Part of the letter read, “Rabbi Rosenblatt has come under criticism for his practice of playing squash with us, and those similarly situated to us, and for conversing with us afterward in the sauna or showers of the public gyms. We are the ostensible victims of his behavior. But we are not victims. Each of us has benefited immeasurably from Rabbi Rosenblatt’s wisdom and empathy. Rabbi Rosenblatt has taught us Torah and, with his compassionate and tireless service to the congregation, has modeled for us what it means to be a community and pulpit rabbi.”

The letter went on to state that the there was never any obligation to play squash with the rabbi.

“Contrary to what news reports have suggested, we experienced no sexual overtures, no inappropriate gestures and no discomfiting behavior while playing squash or while conversing in the locker room, shower or sauna afterward. There was also no expectation of secrecy or confidentiality; to the contrary, everything was done openly and in public spaces.”

The author of the petition, who wished to remain anonymous, is a young man of 30.

“I’m a person who makes a pretty strong distinction between personal feelings and principles,” he told the Jewish Link. “I try to maintain that I’m following principles. My decision to get involved with this was based on principle. I saw someone being railroaded in this kind of way, and I saw it being done without real inquiry. No one sought out any information from the people who played squash with the rabbi. No one sought out our reflections or experiences.”

He then lambasted what he called Rabbi Rosenblatt’s “trial in the court of public opinion based on hearsay.”

Next in line came a letter disapproving of the Executive Committee’s letter seeking an “amicable resolution.”

The letter, in part, read: “We have never supported, do not support and will not support any effort to buy out the rabbi’s contract, and we urge all members, trustees and officers of the synagogue to continue to treat the rabbi with the full respect required when dealing with a spiritual leader who is a talmid chacham and ben Torah. We believe that rational persons cannot but agree that the rabbi’s decades of spectacular service, which have been made possible by his enormous talent, dedication and creativity, so far outweigh the “parsed ambiguities” referred to in the published article, as to render the publication of such article a massive disservice to an entire community perpetrated by the continuing obsession of the very few.”

Yehudah Kurtzer, who was quoted about the rabbi’s squash, shower and sauna practice in the New York Times, when reached for comment via e-mail, responded with a “no comment.”

Asher Harris, an RJC member since 1988, and an attorney, said that the rabbi has been an important part of his and his family’s lives for many years.

“The shul is taking relationships and networks and personal bonds and throwing them out for reasons I think are arbitrary,” he said.

Two other RJC members who were called who allegedly favored the rabbi’s ouster declined comment when contacted.

Dr. Michael Salaman, a psychologist from Hewlett, N.Y., and an author on the subject of abuse, said that he knew about the concerns of Rabbi Rosenblatt’s squash-then-sauna practices “for years.”

“I’m not going to make a diagnosis,” he said over the phone, “but it seems that there is some sort of issue with voyeurism.”








Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.