During Sunday’s morning minyan at Young Israel of Vanderveer Park in Brooklyn, Rabbi Joseph Rosenbluh darted around the run-down sanctuary, stepping over aluminum pans that catch water from the leaky roof, helping daveners find the appropriate page in the book of Selichot.
When he read the prayers himself, the rabbi said later, the words had particular resonance.
"I ask God not to punish me for my sins, and to let me learn from them," he said, pointing to a spot in the book. "Remove the factors in my life that cause me to make bad judgments."
In synagogues around the world this week, Selichot, or supplication prayers, were recited as rabbis counseled congregants to seek forgiveness.
At the Young Israel of Vanderveer Park, it’s the rabbi doing the atoning.
It has been more than two months since Rabbi Rosenbluh, who has a long history of welcoming black converts to Judaism, committed what he now considers an act of poor judgment.
Needing to relocate his congregation during the summer because the Young Israel has no air conditioning, Rabbi Rosenbluh made an arrangement with a rabbi to use temporary space at another synagogue in Flatbush.
Rabbi Rosenbluh said all of those involved have forgiven him, but one congregant, Zahava Graham, has yet to rejoin services at the synagogue after telling the rabbi she would never return. (She did not return calls requesting comment.)
On Sunday, following morning services and Selichot, the rabbi invited congregants to a breakfast to make a public apology for the affair. He asked The Jewish Week to attend.
By the time the bagels were out of the bag, though, only four people sat down to listen to his speech, including Yerubal Nasi, one of those affected by the incident.
"I was hoping to have more people," said the rabbi, explaining that with the benefit of hindsight, he would have "tried to find a better arrangement somewhere else" or brought the matter before members of his board for discussion.
Nasi said he harbored no bad feelings about the incident.
"I stand with the shul in all its endeavors," said Nasi, a building inspector with the city’s Housing Authority, who came to the minyan with his 20-year-old son, Ari. "I can’t tell you a better person" than the rabbi, he added.
Also at the breakfast was Nadeevah Wallace, a Jewish African American from Borough Park who is not a member of the congregation but came to show her support for the rabbi. "I think the incident was misjudged," said Wallace, whose grandson was tutored for his bar mitzvah by Rabbi Rosenbluh and who praised the rabbi’s attentiveness to the boy.
The Young Israel remains in shabby condition, with chunks of ceiling panels on the floor and a pew, a musty smell in the air and dark patches on the ceiling to the left of the bima. Rabbi Rosenbluh, a dentist who volunteers his services and has kept the congregation alive since the 1980s, hopes to eventually relocate the congregation to a more Jewish neighborhood.
But the state of the congregation is strong. The rabbi expects 40 to 50 worshipers for holiday services, about the same as previous years.
Shlomo Davidson, who walks 12 blocks from his Midwood home to the Young Israel, said those who were upset by the incident "have extended forgiveness to Rabbi Rosenbluh." But Davidson, who has known the rabbi nearly 30 years, adds that in his opinion, the rabbi "did nothing wrong."
Davidson said the poor condition of the Young Israel and the stipulations about using the temporary building left the rabbi "in catch-22 circumstances." He pointed out that Rabbi Rosenbluh "has always done very well in accepting converts."
At the conclusion of Sunday’s service, the rabbi attempted to sound the shofar according to tradition. At first the sounds were hollow and uneven. But on the next attempt, the blasts were appropriately piercing, calling loud and clear for all to hear them to come and atone.
Rabbi Rosenbluh smiled and nodded with satisfaction.