After lengthy battle, ‘sauna rabbi’ Jonathan Rosenblatt steps down
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After lengthy battle, ‘sauna rabbi’ Jonathan Rosenblatt steps down

Accused of inappropriate conduct with teenage boys, rabbi to leave after 30 years at helm of NY’s Riverdale Jewish Center

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Senior Rabbi of Rivardale Jewish Center Jonathan Rosenblatt speaks at a solidarity interfaith gathering attended by clergy, politicians, community leaders and activists at the Riverdale Jewish Center in Bronx, NY, Friday, May 22, 2009. (AP Photo/David Karp)
Senior Rabbi of Rivardale Jewish Center Jonathan Rosenblatt speaks at a solidarity interfaith gathering attended by clergy, politicians, community leaders and activists at the Riverdale Jewish Center in Bronx, NY, Friday, May 22, 2009. (AP Photo/David Karp)

Following a tumultuous year of sexual misconduct allegations and a community effort to bring about his ouster, Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt told his New York synagogue Wednesday that he would step down as community rabbi.

The decision was announced in a letter sent to the members of the Riverdale Jewish Center by its president, Samson Fine.

“Rabbi Rosenblatt has today informed RJC’s leadership that he intends to step aside from the Senior Rabbinate of the RJC,” the email read. “The Shul’s Board of Trustees was informed at this evening Board meeting and we anticipate discussing transition details the Board in the next two weeks.”

The Riverdale Jewish Center had decided to keep Rosenblatt in place despite protests over reports of sauna chats with naked boys revealed in an exposé in The New York Times in May 2014.

Rosenblatt, who denied any criminal wrongdoing but apologized for inappropriate behavior, had been fighting efforts by some in his Orthodox congregation to buy out the remaining three years on his contract.

Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt speaking at the Riverdale Jewish Center in New York on February 26, 2014. (Screen grab: YouTube)
Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt speaking at the Riverdale Jewish Center in New York on February 26, 2014. (Screen grab: YouTube)

Despite the controversy stirred by the article about Rosenblatt’s practice for years of inviting teenage boys and young men for naked heart-to-hearts in the sauna after racquetball games, he retained the support of community leaders.

In a letter sent to congregants on August 13, the synagogue leadership said it had decided that Rosenblatt’s own plan for moving past the scandal was the best of various alternate scenarios for the New York shul, which has been led by Rosenblatt for the last 30 years.

“Rabbi Rosenblatt shared his vision and commitment to continue serving our membership and partnering with the RJC’s lay leaders, staff and community,” said the letter, which was signed by the synagogue’s board chairman, Donald Liss; and Fine, its president. “He described how we will strengthen communal bonds between and among our members, maintain the financial stability of our synagogue and enhance the spirit of collaboration that exists between the RJC and the community.”

No one cited in the Times story that prompted the firestorm accused Rosenblatt of sexual touching, but several expressed their discomfort with his practices and described his behavior as deeply inappropriate for a rabbi and mentor. At various times, Rosenblatt was told by his congregation’s board or the Rabbinical Council of America to limit his inappropriate activity.

After the Times published its story, the RJC’s board of directors voted 34-8 to seek a financial settlement to get 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.

Rosenblatt’s determination to stay was bolstered by the warm reception he received after a dramatic public apology in front of hundreds of congregants at a synagogue gathering in late June 2015.

“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.”

Yehuda Kurtzer, the only man cited by name in The New York Times story who had experienced an invitation from Rosenblatt to join him in the sauna, said he had been outraged by the congregation’s lack of action against Rosenblatt.

“Rabbi Rosenblatt has shrewdly managed his way out of this crisis with the advice of counsel, clearly managing his communications along the way, demonizing his opponents, and avoiding any significant fallout,” Kurtzer said in a Facebook post after the letter from synagogue leaders was sent. “He has hurt his students, he has further alienated his accusers, and his continued presence on the pulpit at RJC insults the dignity of our community.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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