Keeping ‘Sauna Rabbi’ Disgraces Riverdale Jewish Center
The sordid tale of sexual misconduct by Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, the “sauna rabbi,” has ended in the most unsatisfactory way imaginable: The Riverdale Jewish Center has decided to leave Rabbi Rosenblatt in his position.
The rabbi’s inexcusable behavior has now been compounded by the willingness of the synagogue to continue the employment of a rabbi who betrayed its trust, likely traumatized its children, violated central tenets of Jewish law, and brazenly continued with his misconduct for decades.
As initially reported in the New York Times, Rabbi Rosenblatt, beginning in the 1980s, invited teenage boys and young men for naked, heart-to-heart talks in saunas and hot tubs, often gawking at them and making suggestive comments. He would, according to the report, invite boys to his home or visit them in their homes, touching them on the shoulder or leg while offering advice or Torah lessons.
Apparently no laws were broken, but about this there can be no doubt: Sacred principles of Judaism were violated. Teachers of Torah are not permitted to abuse their authority and take advantage of young students, whether or not “genital touching” is involved. The Torah is supremely sensitive to the potential for abuse in a student-teacher relationship and warns teachers, even great Torah scholars, to avoid situations in which exploitation may occur.
While Rabbi Rosenblatt is the primary culprit, the Riverdale Jewish Center is far from blameless. As noted in the Times story, complaints were repeatedly made to synagogue authorities about the rabbi’s actions and assurances were repeatedly given by the synagogue that the rabbi had stopped. But he had not. For 25 years, the congregation was unwilling to put an end to the exploitation in which Rabbi Rosenblatt was involved. And it was within its power to do so. After all, if Rosenblatt did not heed the warnings that one assumes he was given, the synagogue could have severed its relationship with him and shared with its members the reason why.
Other Jewish institutions are implicated as well. Yeshiva University, for example, discontinued sending interns to the synagogue, but allowed students to pursue an internship with Rosenblatt if they did so “independently.” Why in heaven’s name was this permitted? If a school is aware that its students are subject to danger by working with a given mentor, then it is obligated to prohibit students from serving with that mentor, either under the school’s auspices or on their own.
Of course, many would say that as terrible as Rosenblatt’s actions were, the awareness that we have of such matters is far greater today than was the case 20 years ago. But that is precisely the point and the reason why the synagogue’s failure to terminate the rabbi’s contract now is so unforgivable.
One would think that after all these years of looking the other way, the congregation would finally do the right thing and hold the rabbi responsible for his actions. After all, we are not talking about an incident or two of questionable conduct. What is involved here is a long-term pattern of outrageous behavior by Riverdale’s spiritual leader. Surely the time has finally come to send a message that such behavior is unacceptable at Riverdale Jewish Center, or at any synagogue or Jewish place of learning anywhere. Surely the time has come to make amends to the victims of this behavior, many of whom continue to suffer its consequences. And surely the time has come for the synagogue leadership to acknowledge their own failures to act promptly and decisively to reign in their rabbi’s actions and protect their congregation’s children.
But Riverdale Jewish Center has decided to do otherwise, apparently agreeing with Rosenblatt’s lawyer that the rabbi did nothing that “warranted his dismissal.” Rosenblatt, according to a report about a recent congregational meeting, expressed regret for his “lapses of judgment.” And many congregants have supported the rabbi, taking note of his 30 years of devotion to the shul and his care and love for its members.
Yet all of this has a hollow ring to it. I have no doubt that Rabbi Rosenblatt has done wonderful things during his tenure at Riverdale, and if his teshuva – repentance – is sincere, that is a blessing. We know that all Jews, leaders included, can be vulnerable and weak. But in this case, his good deeds do not cancel out the hurt that he inflicted on so many others. His acts were so wrenching that he forfeited his claim to leadership, a fact that he recognized when he and the synagogue board announced in June his intention to step down. And he should have stuck to that plan and made way for another rabbi who would carry out the sacred work of the Riverdale Jewish Center.
But he changed his mind, minimized his misdeeds, and instead of stepping aside with some dignity, brought additional shame upon himself, his community, and the Jewish people. If there is one thing that rabbis of all streams and points of view agree on, it is this: Sexual misconduct by rabbis is utterly abhorrent. Our ancient, enduring, and awe-inspiring Jewish tradition, built on a foundation of trust and individual righteousness, will not tolerate it.