Jonathan Rosenblatt and the Boundary between Innocent, Creepy, and Abusive

Yossele Rosenblatt

Yossele Rosenblatt

Jonathan Rosenblatt, rabbi of the Riverdale Jewish Center, is the great-grandson of Yossele Rosenblatt. I am sitting here listening to Yossele’s magnificent cantorial singing on recordings made a hundred years ago. He had everything, vocal range, control, phrasing, musicality, originality, and above all, soul. His secular contemporary in the opera was the great Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso. According to an often repeated story, Caruso attended one of Rosenblatt’s New York recitals. After hearing Rosenblatt sing Eli, Eli, he went on stage and kissed him. That was an innocent kiss expressing one great artist’s admiration of another.

But other interactions devoid of physical contact can be downright creepy. Most women have had the unpleasant experience of being visually undressed by strangers or having conversational partners talking to their chest instead of their face.

Enrico Caruso

Enrico Caruso

Men are used to using adjacent public urinals. Most such interactions are matter-of-fact. Whether or not one chances to notice the other, we are all socialized not to stare. To be caught staring is to cross a boundary. We know when it happens and we turn away or glare back.

As long as the inappropriate gaze comes from a stranger or peer is it mostly an annoyance. But it gets much more unpleasant when it comes from someone with power over you like a parent, teacher, boss or mentor. Workplace sex harassment lawsuits arise from such situations.

Inappropriate gaze is not necessarily a crime, because the law is a crude instrument. It becomes  the crime of child endangerment when it involves nudity and minors in ways that accustom them to being sexualized. The law recognizes that such sexualization as grooming that makes them vulnerable to overt sexual predators.

Judaism has a body of ethical teachings that encompass situations neither permitted nor proscribed by law. Nachmanides coined the phrase naval bireshus hatorah, (a revolting person who is within the bounds of Jewish law). Regardless of whether an action is permitted by law, an ethical person aims much higher. Rabbis are expected to be ethical not just technically compliant with law. A naval bireshus hatorah is not fit to be a rabbi.

Jonathan Rosenblatt

Jonathan Rosenblatt

And yet, some manage to get away with it. The most ingenious Jonathan Rosenblatt has pulled off that feat for close to 30 years while leading the Riverdale Jewish Center (NY). Rosenblatt regularly invited boys to play racquetball with him and then used showering and saunas to gawk and to display himself.

After consultation with the Rabbinical Council of America he agreed to stop doing it with minors but he continued to do it with young men. After the recent revelations and a tumult in his congregation he agreed to stop doing it period. But the harm is there. Many of those subjected to his conduct are rightly aggrieved.

His board voted 34-8 to offer to buy out his contract but he refused. The executive committee of the board then overruled the full board and issued a ringing endorsement of Jonathan Rosenblatt. Five members of the board quit and others are very disaffected. Members are quitting. Others are holding family celebrations and not inviting the rabbi or his core supporters. A group is meeting separately for prayers and there is talk of forming a breakaway congregation for those not inclined to join the main local competitors, R. Avi Weiss’ Hebrew Institute or R. Mordechai Willig’s Young Israel.

Jonathan Rosenblatt Hidden in Plain Sight YU LectureMeanwhile, Rosenblatt’s lecture attendance is dropping but he tries to make up for it by posting it on YUTorah.org. While YU refuses to place students with him, they have no trouble with his sermons.

I don’t know where this saga will end. One or more of his victims may come out publicly with more lurid details that will finally end his run of chutzpah and luck. Or maybe he will hobble on with a diminished congregation.

In the meantime, I can only marvel at his brazen persistence exemplified by his YU Torah posting of a sermon about Yom Kippur liturgy: Hidden in Plain Sight. Indeed.

Those who don’t see have chosen not to look very hard.

UPDATE 9/24/15-

In Riverdale, Split Deepens Over Rabbi: On High Holy Days, hundreds choose to pray elsewhere as Rabbi Rosenblatt presides at RJC ( Jewish Week (NY))
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4 thoughts on “Jonathan Rosenblatt and the Boundary between Innocent, Creepy, and Abusive

  1. While it seems apparent the Rabbi has acted very wrongly and the actions by the president and head of the board are inexcusable, what is most lurid at the moment is your approach in this article. Sensational taglines and labels (“Creepy” here, and “Sauna Bonder” in another) do not content make. To take ‘leering’ allegations and elevate them to an article is to give credibility beyond what is true or correct.

    By all accounts I am familiar with the Rabbi had practices inappropriate for someone befitting his role, on intimate topics better covered elsewhere, and with a frequency which is unsettling. He agreed to stop but did not. Then he did but only somewhat. Those are the facts. At this point the rest is interpretation, innuendo, and smear. Even if there is something more serious that occurred (we hope not) inferring from one person’s interpretation of an old memory of someone’s ‘looking’ is not only not worthy of an article and not even worthy of tavern (or kiddush) jests.

    I do not believe any reputable media outlet would ever have published such a piece. It’s filled with smear and distracts from the facts which are entirely sufficient on their own. I feel that articles like this undermine your, and your site’s, credibility.

    • The title of the article was motivated by the constant refrain, “yeah, Rosenblatt was creepy but no one has proven he touched those boys.” I was specifically focused on decoding the meaning of “creepy” so people could see why that alone is reason enough to fire him. Thus it made sense to include creepy in the title.

      I and others have heard multiple accounts of misconduct by Rosenblatt and in some his conduct did extend to more than gawking and exposing himself.

      Sauna bonding is just a rearrangement of Rosenblatt’s own claim that he bonded with his proteges and youngsters through his gym experiences.

      Descriptions of him staring do qualify as leering.

      I believe I offered a serious discussion about his conduct albeit without being stodgy.

      We are obviously entitled to our differing views about the propriety of my style. But there are no grounds for you to accuse me of smearing him. If the shoe fits…

    • Disappointed,

      You write “by all accounts I am familiar with the Rabbi had practices by all accounts inappropriate for someone befitting his role, on intimate topics better covered elsewhere” and with a “frequency which is unsettling”.

      You speak of “intimate topics better covered elsewhere.” Where, pray tell, should they be covered, other than in a courtroom, or on the blogs that expose such inappropriate atrocities?

      Were you intending some different locale, such as Penthouse magazine? Where do you want these “intimate subjects” to be better covered? At a meeting of the Agudah?

      I hope and trust that you will return here to respond.

      Your comment re frequency of events does seem to hint at your having specific information, whether re yourself or re someone who has majorly confided in you.

      Thank you, chag sameach.

  2. “It becomes the crime of child endangerment when it involves nudity and minors in ways that accustom them to being sexualized.”

    Without doubt, the greatest disadvantage in being a Rabbi is that on occasion, you’re obliged to act as one. Whether there was or wasn’t any degree of sexual gratification from sitting naked with male minors and older on the part of Rosenblatt, is something that simply cannot be verified one way or the other. Professionally speaking though, too many in his congregation feel creeped out by their Rabbi. And, instead of being sickened by his own בושה in this matter, and staying anonymously out of public view, he stands firm for his rights, מעמיד על מדותיו, while his community is being ripped apart before him. And, that too is creepy.

    רבנים should be held accountable to continuously display a higher standard of ethical behavior, מדות טובות, and to always be מקדש שם שמים, and not ח״ו to be מחלל it. But of course, in this דור עקש ופתלתול we never have any sense of ourselves.

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