Riverdale ‘Sauna’ Rabbi May Be Leaving His Pulpit


In the wake of a controversy over Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt’s practice of inviting boys and young men to shower and share the sauna with him, it appears that his three-decade tenure at the Riverdale Jewish Center may be coming to an end, The Jewish Week has learned.

On Monday night, the board of directors voted 34-8 to seek a financial settlement with the rabbi and for him to step down, according to those involved in the issue.

The board’s discussion did not focus on the merits or harm involved in the rabbi’s longstanding outreach effort to males by playing squash or racquetball with them before showering and shmoozing in the sauna, sources said. Rather, its members appeared to be swayed by the argument that as a result of the controversy, set off by a May 30 New York Times article on the rabbi’s “unusual” behavior, Rabbi Rosenblatt would no longer be able to fulfill his rabbinic duties at the 700-member Modern Orthodox synagogue he leads.

Board members also were made aware that should the synagogue be sued civilly or criminally by an individual alleging abuse, they could be held financially accountable for damages awarded since they have fiduciary responsibility, and the rabbi’s practice was long known within the synagogue.

Speaking on behalf of Rabbi Rosenblatt, his attorney, Ben Brafman, told The Jewish Week on Tuesday: “We are working diligently and responsibly to address the issues that have been raised since the recent articles about Rabbi Rosenblatt have been published. I remind you, however, that Rabbi Rosenblatt has not been charged with any criminal offense.

“In my judgment,” he added, “he will never be charged. Accordingly, I caution everyone involved to take a deep breath so that this matter can be resolved fairly and with the dignity Rabbi Rosenblatt has earned in three decades of service to the community.”

The rabbi, whose six-month sabbatical is coming to an end soon, sent a letter to his congregants last week that expressed deep “regret if my conduct at any time inadvertently offended anyone during my many years of service.

“I want to assure you, however,” he wrote, “that it was never my intention to cause any harm, nor did I ever do anything that was unlawful. If any of you feel that my behavior, even if innocent, was inappropriate, I apologize to those affected.”

Rabbi Rosenblatt (no relation to this reporter) noted the “anguish” that he and his family feel, and said that his “silence in the face of public accusations and attacks” should not be “construed as my agreeing with my accusers. Nothing could be further from the truth.” He explained that his attorney “counseled silence on all matters of substance.”

Those close to the case on both sides say they are hopeful the issue can be resolved soon.

In the meantime, letters both in support of the rabbi and calling for his resignation have been circulating in the community. Amidst the different opinions being aired, virtually everyone involved described the situation as sad and one that could have been avoided.

Meanwhile, an annual educational and mentoring program in the fall for Orthodox pulpit rabbis that Rabbi Rosenblatt addressed for more than a dozen years, most recently under the auspices of the Orthodox Union, has ended. Rabbi Steven Weil, senior managing director of the OU, said the program, known as the West Coast Rav, began in California when he was rabbi of a congregation in Los Angeles, and it expanded nationally. He and others noted that Rabbi Rosenblatt’s participation was highly popular with the group.

Rabbi Weil brought the program to the OU when he became chief executive in 2009. It was scheduled to take place in the fall of 2014, but did not. Some suggest that the program was canceled after reports about Rabbi Rosenblatt’s uncommon outreach practice with young men began to circulate in the community.

OU officials did not comment on that theory.