It is not appropriate for a grown man, a rabbi or anyone, to shower or sit in the sauna with youth, no matter how the game of squash may break down conversational defenses.
We know that Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt has had a long, successful career and has many people who love him and can name how he has positively impacted individuals and their families.
But we cannot create such a scenario that young people should feel they must honor the requests of an authority figure on in and person is a family’s rabbi. Worse, we cannot allow for any feelings of fear of young people to come forward if they feel that their boundaries have been crossed. Taking one’s clothing off for some is a critical barrier. But if the rabbi is doing it, how can you not?
Whether Rabbi Rosenblatt comes out of this with his pulpit and his image intact is up to the Riverdale Jewish Center leadership and the rabbi himself.
But no matter what that decision comes to, we need to listen to the people who might have felt victimized. All of the good that the rabbi did in his nearly 30 years as spiritual leader of RJC is negated if any one person does not feel comfortable enough even to come forward.
We know that he was talked to by shul leadership about the awkward discomfort his practice of a game of squash and a schvitz might cause for some people, yet it seems to have carried on.
To those who are coming to his defense, I am not asking that you give up your personal bonds with Rosenblatt. For you, it might have been perfectly normal to sit in the sauna and talk about life with the rabbi. But there are others who just might have found this kind of behavior triggering. Even if the rabbi’s behavior was appropriate, he should have been more sensitive that it wasn’t for everybody, and that it could easily be misconstrued, especially in this day and age when the terms “voyeur” and “sexual predator” have found their ways into the otherwise safe and highly valued world of Orthodox Judaism.
I must admit that I have never met Rosenblatt. But I have done my share of writing on this issue.
I once heard at a community meeting noted psychologist Dr. David Pelcovitz say to a packed sanctuary that 99 percent of those who feel they have been violated are telling the truth. But when one’s rabbi is the stuff of legends, it’s difficult to be the one to go to parents or shul officials or even to call 911.
Rabbi Rosenblatt, I’m sure you’ve saved lives. I’m certain that the reputation you have as someone who works 24/7 for your kehilla is all true.
But you should have been smart enough and sensitive enough to keep your clothes on in and out of the sauna.
It isn’t for everybody. Everyone I interviewed said that you never, ever touched them. But you still shouldn’t have placed people in a situation that sexual touch was even a remote possibility. It does not matter that perhaps a small minority of people felt uncomfortable seeing you naked. If one person can’t get that image from triggering depression and/or anxiety, than you’ve done it all wrong. For many, becoming a victim can happen just by sitting in a sauna. That one time, that one memory can shape their lives.
Plenty of rabbis make wonderful progress with youth, teens and young adults fully clothed.
You used your authority. I pray that you ask your community for forgiveness, not in an email, but from the pulpit.
And it’s my hope that you learn that what might be right for many, isn’t right for all.
My feelings are with the RJC Executive Committee and yes, also with Rabbi Rosenblatt. I just hope they all make the right decisions going forward. And what is right will be in the best interest of the RJC kehilla.
By Phil Jacobs