After an often-contentious four-and-a-half hour congregational meeting on Wednesday night, the membership of the Riverdale Jewish Center voted overwhelmingly in favor of a board-recommended retirement agreement for Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt. He will end his 31-year-tenure as spiritual leader of the Modern Orthodox synagogue next week.
The vote was 352-75 in favor of the rabbi stepping down from the pulpit. He will be compensated with a retirement package spread out until 2032 and valued at about $2.1 million. As a private citizen he will have no title in the synagogue, where he will be given a life membership.
It is believed that it will be at least a year before a new rabbi is hired.
Rabbi Rosenblatt (no relation) has been the center of controversy for his unusual practice over the years of inviting teenage boys, and later young men, to engage in close conversation with him unclothed in the sauna after playing racquetball. Critics said such behavior was highly inappropriate, though not illegal, and unbefitting a rabbi; defenders insisted his reputation was being unfairly tainted for an innocent, if odd, means of seeking to connect as a mentor to young men.
Some members of the congregation opposed the deal because they supported the rabbi and wanted him to remain in his post until his contract ends in August 2018. Others opposed the deal for a different reason; they wanted the rabbi out but felt he was being overly compensated, especially since the synagogue’s membership and reputation have been adversely affected.
The agreement calls for the rabbi to be given the house, owned by the synagogue, where he and his family have been living for many years and valued at approximately $800,000.
Concern was expressed at the meeting that the combination of paying out Rabbi Rosenblatt and hiring a new rabbi at a time when membership is down would create a serious financial burden on RJC. The board leadership asserted that in the long run the synagogue would benefit from the agreement financially.
In the end the overwhelming majority of voting members approved of the package, initiated by Rabbi Rosenblatt in recent weeks. Many apparently agreed with the sentiment expressed by Meyer Koplow, the rabbi’s attorney and spokesman, who told The Jewish Week on Thursday: “I hope this is the first step toward the community coming back together.”
One synagogue source said RJC membership is 376 family units, down from almost 600 a year ago. A significant number of members now pray at the Riverdale Minyan, which was begun after the rabbi’s behavior was first reported in the New York Times last June. The minyan, which rents space from a Reform temple in the neighborhood, includes some of the congregation’s former lay leaders and significant donors. Whether or not they will come back to the RJC or continue to meet each Shabbat remains to be seen.
According to several members who attended the RJC meeting, the mood among the large crowd was charged from the outset. The president of the congregation, Samson Fine, fielded and responded to comments and questions from the floor after a slide presentation that promoted the agreement for economic and communal reasons. Fine was sometimes interrupted by shouts and told people to maintain order or be asked to leave.
“If the rabbi was to stay in his post, the shul will continue to splinter,” one member told The Jewish Week. “Now that he is leaving we have a chance to put the shul together again. But it won’t be easy.”