Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, a leading Modern Orthodox rabbi, was believed to be stepping down from his pulpit at the Riverdale Jewish Center after becoming the center of an embarrassing controversy last month. But he elicited enthusiastic support from congregants when he announced Wednesday night his resolve to stay on in the post he has held almost 30 years.
According to several attendees present at the meeting, which was open only to members of 700-member congregation, the rabbi’s dramatic apology elicited a standing ovation from most of those in the packed synagogue.
Earlier this month the board of directors voted 34-8 to seek a financial settlement and have Rabbi Rosenblatt resign. His attorney, Benjamin Brafman, had indicated that discussions were taking place to bring a dignified conclusion to the rabbi’s tenure. But the rabbi told his congregants he wants to continue serving them.
Brafman said the synagogue board does not have the power to remove the rabbi, according to a New York Times report. Presumably a decision to remove the rabbi could only come through a vote by the full congregation, where he enjoys strong support.
In his first address from the pulpit since a story in The New York Times was published May 30, Rabbi Rosenblatt said Wednesday night that he already has been sentenced by the court of opinion and will live out his days in shame and embarrassment, according to one congregant.
“I stand before you a broken man… I desecrated God’s name,” the congregant, who asked not to be named to avoid the politics of the situation, recalled the rabbi saying.
“He spoke several times of `lapses of judgment’ and miscalculating his actions, being misguided in thinking 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.
The rabbi, 58, reiterated that he had committed no crime and that his controversial behavior had no sexual connotations and has ceased. He encouraged congregants to pick up on their way out copies prepared of the latest edition of The Riverdale Review, a local newspaper containing a front-page story on the groundswell of support for the rabbi and an opinion piece voicing similar backing. Also available were packets of letters on behalf of the rabbi from 70 former rabbinic interns and others who had played squash with the rabbi.
In his speech, Rabbi Rosenblatt applauded the actions of “the one who stepped forward” to tell the New York Times of his shock and deep discomfort when invited by the rabbi after a squash match to join him nude in a sauna in 1997. The rabbi did not name the whistleblower, 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.”
The Times story that prompted the firestorm focused on Rabbi Rosenblatt’s custom of inviting male congregants or students, some as young as 12, to play squash or racquetball, then join him in the public shower and sauna or steam room, often naked. No one cited in the story accused Rabbi Rosenblatt of sexual touching, but several expressed their discomfort with the practice and described the behavior as deeply inappropriate for a rabbi and mentor. At various times, Rabbi Rosenblatt was told by rabbinic bodies or his congregation’s board to limit such activity.
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.
In the wake of the New York Times article last month, nearly 200 members signed a petition calling on the rabbi to remain in his position, while a second petition signed by about 45 members urged him to resign.