Rabbi Who Had Naked Chats in Sauna Intends to Keep His Job at Riverdale Jewish Center

By Andy Newman
New York Times
June 25, 2015

Congregants outside the Riverdale Jewish Center in the Bronx on Wednesday.

A prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi who has been criticized for taking boys as young as 12 naked to the sauna defied the board of his synagogue and told supportive congregants Wednesday night that he would remain as their spiritual leader.

The rabbi, Jonathan Rosenblatt, of Riverdale Jewish Center in the Bronx had agreed to negotiate with the board on a deal to buy out the last three years of his contract, after a New York Times article last month about his sauna talks with young men.

But an apologetic Rabbi Rosenblatt told a mostly packed house that he intended to stay at the helm of the 700-member synagogue he has led for 30 years, according to several people who attended the members-only event.

“This is a crisis created by my own lapses of judgment,” said Rabbi Rosenblatt, 58, on a recording of the speech transcribed by a synagogue member. “I have brought pain to people, shame to my family and I have caused a desecration of the divine name.”

Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt in 2009.

The members requested anonymity to share details about the workings of the synagogue.

The synagogue’s board had told members on June 9 that it had decided to try to “achieve an amicable resolution with Rabbi Rosenblatt.” The vote to try to buy him out was reported as 34 to 8 in favor by The Jewish Week. And a lawyer for the rabbi had said that he expected to reach an agreement to step down.

But the lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, said on Wednesday that the rabbi had decided to stay because “this is the rabbi’s life and he didn’t want to leave the pulpit.”

“And after reflection and careful thought,” Mr. Brafman continued, “he realized that he did nothing that warranted his dismissal, nor his retirement.”

He declined to further discuss the negotiation process.

After the meeting, members seemed buoyed by the news.

“He is a caring, loving and brilliant rabbi,” said one woman, Sherrell Najman. “He deserves to continue his great work.”

In the wake of the Times article, nearly 200 members had signed a petition urging the rabbi to stay. A competing petition signed by about 45 members called on him to step down.

The synagogue board does not have the power to remove the rabbi, Mr. Brafman said. The president and chairman did not respond to messages on Wednesday night.

Shortly after Rabbi Rosenblatt took the reins of the synagogue in 1985, he began taking boys around bar mitzvah age to the gym to play squash. Afterward he would shower beside them and would take them to the sauna or hot tub where, often naked and with them often naked, he would have discussions about their lives and faith. He said that the sauna talks were critical to his mentoring process.

Several of those boys, now men in their 40s, told The Times that the rabbi made them uncomfortable by gawking at their naked bodies or touching a clothed leg during one-on-one nighttime chats.

The synagogue’s leadership in the 1980s and 1990s knew of the sauna visits and urged him to stop but took no other action.

It is believed that in the 1990s, Rabbi Rosenblatt stopped taking younger boys to the sauna. He went on to become a noted mentor of rabbinical students and often accepted interns from his alma mater, Yeshiva University.

The university eventually stopped placing interns with him (though Yeshiva students continued to elect to intern with him). In 2011, the Rabbinical Council of America had Rabbi Rosenblatt agree to stop taking congregation members to the sauna. The council said he had abided by that.

After the rabbi’s speech, two members said, the congregation applauded, and some stood.








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