In Riverdale, Split Deepens Over Rabbi


Ludwig “Lou” Bravmann, a prime force behind the direction and financial stability of the Riverdale Jewish Center for decades, says that lately he wakes up in the middle of the night “feeling terrible, depressed — I’ve never felt this bad.”

At 90, after more than 45 years of daily prayer attendance and lay leadership at the 600-family Modern Orthodox synagogue, he has resigned from the board of the congregation and is praying on the High Holy Days at a newly formed service a few blocks away.

The service, now known as The Riverdale Minyan and made up of more than 100 families, was created this summer as a response to widespread dissatisfaction among some members of RJC over decisions made in the last three months by the rabbi, Jonathan Rosenblatt, and its lay leadership.  

On Rosh HaShanah, making the trek with a wheelchair and walker, Bravmann was one of an estimated 240 adults, almost all RJC congregants, and 40 children, who prayed at an Orthodox service in a room rented in a nearby Reform temple. A similar service was scheduled for Yom Kippur, and efforts are under way to find a more permanent space for the group to use for Shabbat, and perhaps daily, services — a potentially stunning blow to the makeup and sustainability of the RJC, which was founded more than 60 years ago.

The source of disappointment and distress for Bravmann, and the reason he and the others — including Jack Bendheim and two other former presidents of the congregation and a former assistant rabbi — came together to pray is the action centering around Rabbi Rosenblatt, the RJC’s long-admired spiritual leader of three decades. 

There was embarrassment when The New York Times at the end of May made public the rabbi’s longtime habit of inviting teenage boys, and later young men, to shower and join him in the sauna for private talks after playing racquetball. Since then the congregation has gone through a series of tactical shifts over how to respond to media reports. It has struggled with whether to praise or criticize the whistleblower who publicly called out the rabbi’s unusual behavior, and it was conflicted about whom to trust and whom to blame when the lay leadership of the congregation shifted from calling for the rabbi to step down to supporting his commitment to continue in his pulpit.

An impetus for the new minyan, one organizer explained, was “concern that the noise around the rabbi was having a negative effect on new families with young children moving into Riverdale, which over time could have serious consequences” for the congregation and SAR, the Modern Orthodox community day school. (An estimated 30 percent of its student body comes from RJC families.)

While an apparent majority of RJC members remains loyal to the rabbi and insists the criticism has been overblown, others are frustrated by what they consider to be a lack of transparency as key decisions about the rabbi’s status were apparently made by a handful of leaders in private.

Most poignant, perhaps, are those who say they have lost their faith in the rabbi, shaken that he is holding on to his position even as the flock he has led and tended to is divided over his presence. Even stalwart supporters had hoped Rabbi Rosenblatt, seeing the empty pews and growing dissension, would step down from his pulpit for the good of the congregation. But that was not to be.

The High Holy Day season, a time designated for seeking — and granting — forgiveness, is bringing out strong emotions this year for many longtime congregants, including Lou Bravmann.  

“I suggested his name to the selection committee chairman” three decades ago, Bravmann said of Rabbi Rosenblatt (no relation to this writer) in a conversation we had the other day. “I had good contact with him over the years. But I think that the rabbi, whether he did anything [inappropriate] or not, should step down from the pulpit.

“The congregation and its leadership is guilty, I among them, for not taking care of this” years ago, he continued.

“We should have seen … listened to what was going on. I spoke to the rabbi briefly in 1996. I said I’ve heard rumors and I suggested that he get some help. I didn’t hear about it again for years, when I heard he was going to the sauna with the rabbinic interns,” an issue that came to light in the last several years.  

Rabbi Rosenblatt, who declined to comment for this article, addressed the issue publicly in late June when he told a packed audience at RJC that he felt “fragile and embarrassed” for the “shame” he has brought his family and community. He described his behavior with boys and young men as “lapses of judgment” and said, “That I have been a source of desecration of the Divine Name and of a noble calling brings me nearly to despair.”

He concluded his 20-minute address by saying, “I still love being a rabbi. 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.”

Most of those in the audience stood and applauded at the conclusion of the rabbi’s talk. But the situation soured as attention focused on the actions — or inaction — of the congregational board, which initially voted 34-8 to seek an amicable resolution with the rabbi. It was widely presumed that the congregation would buy out the rabbi’s contract, which extends through August 2018. But when it became clear that Rabbi Rosenblatt intended to stay, and it was learned that, according to New York State law, a church or synagogue cannot terminate a religious leader in mid-contract without a full vote of the membership, RJC’s top lay leaders opted not to risk splitting the congregation over such a vote.

“It would likely further inflame the community and risk permanent fracture,” RJC’s president, Samson Fine, told me on Monday. He said there was no move among the membership for a congregational vote.

There was no board vote, either. And more than a dozen board members resigned their posts (though they retained their synagogue membership), complaining that the decision over the rabbi’s status had been made without the full board’s input.  

“This summer was a time of high emotion,” Fine said, “and some of the extreme and polarizing views expressed hampered our efforts to have constructive dialogue with the community and with the rabbi.” For the most part, he added, life goes on as usual at RJC. He said that contrary to some rumors and reports, “the shul’s finances are satisfactory to maintain our current level of activities. We are on sound financial footing.” He pointed out that only a handful of members have resigned and that regular congregants and those who now attend The Riverdale Minyan celebrated a bar mitzvah together at RJC last Shabbat, and there was no discernible tension. 

Still, the reverberations from the reports of Rabbi Rosenblatt’s activity with young men and his insistence on keeping his pulpit are likely to continue for some time. The RJC is doing its best to look forward, and not dwell on the embarrassing episode. The Riverdale Minyan families hope to stay together and expand their numbers in a new, if temporary, home. And local rabbis and school administrators who have long welcomed Rabbi Rosenblatt to their pulpits and classrooms no doubt are reviewing their policies toward inviting him. In this High Holy Day season is all forgiven, if not forgotten, or will there be some tangible consequences for the rabbi’s admitted “desecration of the Divine Name?”

Meanwhile, Lou Bravmann is saddened by the turn of events and disappointed with Rabbi Rosenblatt’s decision to stay put. “What he is doing now,” he said, “is the worst he could do for his legacy.”

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