Jewish Community Agitated by Rabbi's Sauna Conversations

Questions about the behavior of Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt date back to the Eighties - 'a time less attuned to issues of clerical impropriety.'

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Doubts have resurfaced about a prominent Bronx rabbi with a penchant – according to allegations – for holding long conversations with boys from his congregation while naked in the sauna, the New York Times reported on Sunday.

Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of the Riverdale Jewish Center has not been charged with any crime. But an email posted last fall to a Jewish discussion group has revived questions about his behavior – questions which have been circulating within the community for decades.

Posted by Yehuda Kurtzer to the email list of the Wexner Foundation, a Jewish leadership group, the email asked, “What should I and we do about this rabbi in question? Kurtzer posted it after learning that the rabbi had just spoken at Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy, a Jewish day school attended by Kurtzer’s son.

Kurtzer himself had his own experience with Rosenblatt when he was a 19-year-old Columbia student in 1997. He wrote that he had been “horrified and embarrassed” when, after a game of squash, the respected rabbi stripped and invited him into the sauna.

Only a small number of those who responded to the email defended Rosenblatt. The vast majority condemned the rabbi's conduct, including five men who recounted their own sauna experiences with the rabbi.

"Their accounts, along with others that have emerged, paint a disturbing picture," the newspaper writes. They told of the rabbi openly gawking at a naked 12-year-old; inviting a 15-year-old over for intimate nighttime conversations, during which he frequently put his hand on the boy’s leg; inviting himself into a 17-year-old’s living room and trying repeatedly to persuade him to change into a bathrobe.

Rosenblatt's behavior was known to officials of his synagogue, who quietly urged him to stop. He said that he would and they apparently believed that he had. As the New York Times put it, "because the rabbi was not accused of sexual misconduct, and because this was a time less attuned to issues of clerical impropriety, not much more came of it."

The Rabbinical Council of America, America's leading seminary for Orthodox rabbis, stopped placing rabbinical interns with him, as did Yeshiva University. The council later got him to agree to a plan to limit his activities with his own congregation.

But all the steps to restrain Rosenblatt were taken behind closed doors; the broader community did not get to hear about them. Nor did the rabbi cease his activities.

Around 2002, several Columbia University graduate students who attended an Orthodox synagogue near campus complained about Rabbi Rosenblatt’s sauna invitations, said a former official of that synagogue. Rosenblatt promised the synagogue’s rabbi that he would stop taking Columbia students to the sauna, according to the official.

Rosenblatt did not respond to numerous requests for interviews, according to the New York Times. Seven past and present officials of his synagogue also declined to respond.

The rabbinical council said in a statement that it had been assured by the leadership of the synagogue that "Rabbi Rosenblatt has acted in accord with the plan” — referring to an agreement limiting his interactions with his congregation.

"Rabbi Rosenblatt, now 58, with a silver beard and a commanding presence, remains an important figure in Modern Orthodoxy," according to the New York Times. He was considered for the post of chief rabbi of Britain several years ago and is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard. He is often invited to speak to and teach young people.