Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, a leading Modern Orthodox rabbi, was believed to be stepping down from his pulpit at the Riverdale Jewish Center (RJC) after becoming the center of an embarrassing controversy last month. But he is now determined to stay, bolstered by a warm reception to his dramatic public apology last Wednesday evening in front of hundreds of congregants, and a New York law that makes it difficult to oust him.
The rabbi’s attorney, Benjamin Brafman, told The Jewish Week on Tuesday that Rabbi Rosenblatt resumes his full duties this week, at the conclusion of a six-month sabbatical, and plans to fulfill the three years remaining on his contract.
Contrary to persistent rumors that the rabbi’s status with the congregation, which he has led almost 30 years, is still in flux, Brafman said Rabbi Rosenblatt “has no intention of resigning and there is no cause for him to do so.” He added that “the overwhelming majority of his congregants have signed a petition for him to stay, and as for the minority, other than creating a public spectacle, they have accomplished nothing.”
Several weeks ago the synagogue board of directors voted 34-8 to seek a financial settlement and have Rabbi Rosenblatt resign. At the time Brafman indicated discussions were taking place to bring a dignified conclusion to the rabbi’s tenure.
But since then nearly 200 of the congregation’s members signed a petition on his behalf, as did about 70 rabbinic interns he helped mentor over the years. And the New York Religious Corporations Law prohibits a synagogue board from firing a rabbi without involving the congregation in the decision.
As the focus shifts from the rabbi to his congregation, several members told The Jewish Week they did not know of any plans to hold a vote on the rabbi’s status — or what the outcome would be should a vote be held.
The annual election of synagogue officers was scheduled to be held this week, with few changes expected from last year’s slate.
Still, a significant number of congregants in the 700-member synagogue are unhappy with the status quo and feel the rabbi can no longer be their spiritual leader. An estimated 60 members, representing up to 40 families, met at a private home in the neighborhood on Monday night to express their dissatisfaction with the situation. Some said they plan to attend other local synagogues, others spoke of starting a new shul. The immediate focus, though, was where to attend High Holy Day services this fall.
“The sense in the room was that the current situation is untenable,” said one attendee, who like others interviewed, asked to remain anonymous, given the delicacy of the situation.
“People have to decide now” about where to buy seats for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” he said. “They are looking for alternatives to RJC.”
In his first address from the pulpit since a story about the controversy in The New York Times was published May 30, Rabbi Rosenblatt said last Wednesday night that he felt “fragile and embarrassed” for the “anguish” and “shame” he has brought to his family and community. He described as “lapses of judgment” his longtime practice of inviting boys, and later young men, to play racquetball, and then shower and shmooze in the sauna while naked.
At various times, Rabbi Rosenblatt was told by rabbinic bodies or his congregation’s board to limit such activity.
“That I have been a source of desecration of the Divine Name and of a noble calling brings me nearly to despair,” the rabbi said.
He reiterated that he had committed no crime and that his controversial behavior had no sexual connotations and has ceased.
Rabbi Rosenblatt argued that the punishment he has already received in the court of public opinion is disproportional to what he described as a misguided belief that he could remove the barriers between “rabbi” and “congregant” by meeting young men in various stages of undress in saunas for heart-to-heart talks and counseling.
“I still love being a rabbi,” he said. “I still believe I have contributions to make. In short, with God’s grace, I am ready to serve Him, and with yours, I am ready to continue to serve him here.”
Attendees said that at the conclusion of the 20-minute address, the great majority of people in the packed synagogue stood and applauded.
No one cited in the original New York Times story accused Rabbi Rosenblatt of sexual touching, but several men expressed their discomfort with the practice and described the behavior as deeply inappropriate for a rabbi and mentor, especially with teens and young single men.
The only accuser to publicly speak of his “shock” and discomfort when invited by the rabbi to join him nude in a sauna in 1997 is Yehuda Kurtzer, then a Columbia University student and now president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.
On his Facebook page on Thursday, Kurtzer wrote that he was saddened that “this synagogue … is now stained not just by this scandal but by the stubbornness of a rabbi who will not allow the community to regain its dignity.” He noted that “we get the leaders we deserve” and “we are implicated by the actions of our leaders.”
Kurtzer has been praised and vilified for being the only one of many alleged young men distraught by the rabbi’s personal interactions to have spoken out publicly. He wrote that “whistleblowing yields no rewards for those who do it, but immediately breeds skepticism about motivation and then alienation of the already-lonely voices.”
He expressed anger that “the consequences of this hubris [on the part of the rabbi] is that the victims here are even less likely than before to speak up.”
Rabbi Rosenblatt says he is innocent of any crime. The Bronx district attorney’s office said it is looking into whether any crime was committed and has urged victims to come forward.
Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer; Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher.