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Debate Over the Rabbi and the Sauna

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In Religion Posted

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Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, in 2009, is the leader of the Riverdale Jewish Center.CreditCreditDavid Karp/Associated Press

By Andy Newman and Sharon Otterman

For years, Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, the leader of an affluent Modern Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx, did something unusual with the boys in his congregation.

He took them, some as young as 12, to the gym to play squash or racquetball, then showered beside them and took them into the sauna, where — often naked, and with them often naked — he engaged the boys in searching conversations about their lives, problems and faith.

Some liked talking to the rabbi. But others felt uncomfortable. At the time, the late 1980s, people at Rabbi Rosenblatt’s synagogue, the Riverdale Jewish Center, quietly urged him to stop. He said he would. They believe he eventually did. And 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.

As Rabbi Rosenblatt, an accomplished scholar who married into rabbinical royalty, grew to be one of New York City’s most prominent Orthodox leaders, he took older squash partners to the sauna: college students, rabbinical interns, young men from his congregation.

Many enjoyed the sauna discussions. Rabbi Rosenblatt acquired a reputation as a great mentor. He told several people the sauna talks — in the Jewish tradition of men enjoying fellowship in the shvitz, or steam baths — were a key to his success.

But some people objected to the practice. They said the rabbi was using his authority and position to see his disciples naked. Major Jewish institutions told Rabbi Rosenblatt that inviting his charges to the sauna was not appropriate rabbinical conduct.

The nation’s leading seminary for Orthodox rabbis stopped placing interns with him. The Rabbinical Council of America, which oversees American Orthodox rabbis, later made him agree to a plan to limit his activities with his own congregation.

Because these steps were taken behind closed doors, the broader community did not know about them.

But last fall, decades after the first complaints, a man whom Rabbi Rosenblatt once took to the sauna learned that the rabbi had spoken to sixth graders at the school the man’s son attends.

The father posted an email to a Jewish discussion group with about 500 members, who turned out to include at least six veterans of the sauna sessions. Their accounts, along with others that have emerged, paint a disturbing picture. According to the boys involved, who now are grown, the rabbi openly gawked at a naked 12-year-old. He invited a 15-year-old over for intimate nighttime conversations, during which he frequently put his hand on the boy’s leg. He invited himself into a 17-year-old’s living room and tried repeatedly to persuade him to change into a bathrobe.

The email thread — private, but later shared in part with a reporter — focused new attention on Rabbi Rosenblatt and raised questions that linger still: What lines did Rabbi Rosenblatt’s behavior cross, if any? Did institutions that dealt with him endanger anyone by acting so quietly? And what should a community do with a religious leader — one beloved by many — whose conduct seems troubling?

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