The prominent senior rabbi of a Bronx synagogue who drew scrutiny for having naked sauna chats with boys as young as 12 is stepping down.
The rabbi, Jonathan Rosenblatt, had fought hard to keep his job at the Riverdale Jewish Center after the publication of an article in The New York Times in May describing the sauna sessions, and many congregants rallied to his defense.
But hundreds of other members quit in anger over Rabbi Rosenblatt’s conduct and the synagogue leadership’s tolerance of it, forming a breakaway congregation.
The Riverdale Jewish Center, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the affluent neighborhood of Riverdale, has lost more than half its members since last year.
The synagogue’s president emailed members on Wednesday night to say that the rabbi “intends to step aside from the Senior Rabbinate” of the center, which Rabbi Rosenblatt has led for more than 30 years.
A lawyer for Rabbi Rosenblatt, Meyer G. Koplow, said the rabbi was stepping down because “he would like to see the community grow and he thinks in order for that to happen it needs a fresh start, and this is intended to make that possible.”
Another lawyer for Rabbi Rosenblatt, Benjamin Brafman, said that the rabbi’s decision was “purely voluntary” and that discussions on the subject were “initiated by Rabbi Rosenblatt.”
The email from the synagogue’s president, Samson Fine, said that the synagogue’s trustees “anticipate discussing transition details with the board in the next two weeks.” Mr. Koplow said the rabbi was willing to retain a role at the synagogue if the board wanted that.
Rabbi Rosenblatt is paid $200,000 to $250,000 a year under a contract that runs until August 2018, according to a former synagogue employee who requested anonymity in order to speak about a personnel matter.
The concerns about Rabbi Rosenblatt, 59, center mostly on conduct in the 1980s and 1990s.
He began taking boys around bar mitzvah age to the gym to play squash shortly after he was hired by the synagogue in 1985. After the games, the rabbi would shower with the boys and take them to a sauna or a hot tub where, often naked and often with them naked, he would lead them in discussions of their lives and faith — something he described as critical to his mentoring process.
Several of those boys, now men in their 40s, told The Times that the rabbi made them uncomfortable by gawking at or commenting on their naked bodies, or by touching a clothed leg during one-on-one discussions at his house.
The synagogue’s leadership at the time knew of the sauna visits and urged him to stop but took no other action. It is believed that in the 1990s, the rabbi stopped taking younger boys to the sauna. In 2011, he reached an agreement with the Rabbinical Council of America, which oversees American Orthodox rabbis, to stop taking congregants to the sauna altogether.
The 2015 Times article about the rabbi renewed a debate about whether his conduct was appropriate, and in June, the board voted by a wide margin to seek his removal.
But after Rabbi Rosenblatt made an apologetic speech to the congregation and said that he intended to stay, the leadership of the board said there had been a decision to keep him, leading several trustees to resign in protest.
Members of the synagogue who left formed a new congregation, the Riverdale Minyan, which meets in the social hall of a Reform temple and says it now serves “close to 200 families.”
That would make it nearly as big as the Riverdale Jewish Center itself, which lists about 240 families on the membership roll circulated this month — down from just fewer than 600 a year ago.