An increasing number of allegations of decades-long sexual misconduct against a prominent US rabbi have surfaced in recent months, as the local Jewish community continues to grapple with its response to his worrisome behavior.
According to a report in the New York Times Friday, Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of the Riverdale Jewish Center in the Bronx, New York, habitually engaged in conversations with young members of the congregation while naked in the shower or sauna.
The paper reported that Rosenblatt would often play games of squash or racquetball with males as young as 12, after which he would sit naked with them in the sauna for prolonged periods of time while mentoring or counseling them.
Rosenblatt has said that male fellowship within the shvitz — a traditional Jewish steam bath — were key to his success as a popular, respected mentor and teacher in the Riverdale Jewish community.
However in recent months, an increasing number of former disciples — rabbinical interns, university students and teenagers — have recalled incidents of discomfort during those post-squash sessions with the rabbi.
One man told the paper that as a 12-year-old, he clearly remembers Rosenblatt “gawking” at him while he showered.
Another, now a former congregant, said that during counseling sessions with the rabbi as a teenager, he would touch his leg, and often put his arm over his shoulder. While he said Rosenblatt never touched his genitals, the man described the physical contact as “very seductive and… manipulative in a way.”
Others told The Times that the sauna nudity did not bother them too much, and said that playing sports with the popular rabbi was almost a rite of passage for young Jewish men in Riverdale. “Pretty much everyone I know that was of that age, you played racquetball with Rabbi Rosenblatt,” one man told the paper.
In 1988, a member of Rosenblatt’s synagogue, Sura Jeselsohn, approached the rabbi about her concerns over rumors of misconduct in the sauna. He brushed her concerns aside, and told her that male fellowship in the shvitz was “part of a package” to achieve closeness with the young men.
Jeselsohn, who kept a detailed log of complaints against the rabbi beginning in 1989, went to Riverdale’s president Marvin Hochberg and urged him to place Rosenblatt in counseling. According to Jeselsohn’s notes — which were seen by The Times — Hochberg refused her request, claiming there was no need to involve “outsiders” in investigating the allegations.
In 2002, while Rosenblatt was earning a PhD at Columbia University, several graduate students complained to their rabbi about the sauna sessions. A former synagogue official told the paper that when the students’ rabbi approached Rosenblatt about squash and shvitz sessions, he promised to stop.
Shortly after, Rosenblatt’s alma mater, Yeshiva University, contacted the Rabbinical Council of America after receiving “particular allegations” of “inappropriate behavior” by the university’s rabbinical interns.
Accoding to RCA’s executive vice president at the time, Rabbi Basil Herring, the council required Rosenblatt to see a psychiatrist who ultimately reported that he “did not represent a danger to young men in that no physical boundaries had been crossed, or no inappropriate physical boundaries anyway.”
Herring stated that Rosenblatt promised to stop inviting Yeshiva University seminarians for sauna sessions.
Still concerned by rumors of the rabbi’s conduct, Jeselsohn said she personally contacted Herring in 2008, who assured her that Rosenblatt was under the RCA’s psychological supervision.
In 2011, Herring stated that Rosenblatt had reached an agreement with the RCA to stop taking any of his congregants to the sauna.
However, in recent months, a mounting number of allegations of misconduct have emerged after a former student, who recalled feeling “horrified and embarrassed” by Roseblatt’s sauna actions two decades ago, discovered that his former rabbi was a guest speaker at his son’s school.
Serving as the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in the US, Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, said he reached out for advice about Rosenblatt.
Kurtzer outlined his concerns and sought advice in an email sent to the members of the Wexner Foundation, a Jewish leadership web forum which garnered thousands of responses, including new testimonies against Rosenblatt.
According to the Times, which obtained copies of the email thread, Kurtzer’s message elicited anger, and most condemned the rabbi’s behavior outright.
However, not all of Rosenblatt’s former squash partners feel that the rabbi acted inappropriately.
Assistant Professor of Jewish History at Princeton University, Yaacob Dweck, said that while he often played squash with Rosenblatt, the rabbi had never invited him into the sauna and called the allegations made in the Wexner email exchange a smear campaign.