Rabbi who sauna-ed with students in New York was scholar-in-residence at Beth Jacob on Shavuot

No one alleges abuse, but disagreement as to whether his actions should have kept him from speaking


Courtesy of: Alec Fields

PLANS: Beth Jacob invites teens to shiur with Rabbi Rosenblatt in pink on flyer (left), but cancels it with new flyer (right) before news media described his naked sauna visits with students.

By Alec Fields, Torah Editor

When news broke that Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Rosenblatt of Riverdale had for decades invited young congregants to play squash, talk and then join him naked in a hot sauna, it was only days after he had spent a long weekend as scholar-in-residence at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills for the holiday of Shavuot.

The news was surprising to some, but others had heard rumors about it before, and there was disagreement as to whether Beth Jacob officials should have known and-or prevented his appearance.

“A lot of people in the rabbinic world — and not even the rabbinic world, the Jewish world — have known about this for quite a while,” said Shalhevet Principal Reb Noam Weissman. “People have known that he wasn’t fully clothed with students, and that wasn’t a secret.”

According to Reb Weissman, it was common knowledge that Rabbi Rosenblatt took interns for a “schvitz,” or sauna, after playing racquetball or squash with them.

Some thought the saunas were just part of how he got close to students so he could mentor them. Others thought it was improper from the start, and the board of his synagogue told him to stop doing it.

Rabbi Rosenblatt has not been charged with any crime and no one is alleging actual molestation.

But a May 29 New York Times article detailed a litany of improprieties engaged in by the “brilliant scholar” and senior rabbi at Riverdale Jewish Center of New York. 

The Times reported that over the last 30 years, Rabbi Rosenblatt had showered with students as young as 12, and can be remembered “gawking” at the boys.

Although he would not allow Rabbi Rosenblatt to speak at Shalhevet now, Reb Weissman said that he had a different opinion before the article appeared in the New York Times. 

“From what I knew about the rabbinic interns, I would not have had a problem with him speaking to our students,” said Reb Weissman. “He had a very close relationship with them and they were very comfortable with it.”

As Beth Jacob’s scholar-in-residence, Rabbi Rosenblatt spoke to the community many times over the course of Shavuot and Shabbat, which this year were celebrated over a three-day chag that included Shabbat.

Prior to holiday, Beth Jacob posted online and distributed print flyers listing the various lectures which would be held throughout the weekend, including the holiday’s traditional shiurim in the middle of the night.  One of the classes referenced on the flyer said: “For Teens! Shavuot Night Shiur by Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Rosenblatt, 3:00 am to 3:45 am.”

Some time before Shavuot the flyer was modified and the “teen shiur” was no longer listed.

No one at Beth Jacob would discuss why the shiur was cancelled. The New York Times article about Rabbi Rosenblatt came out after the change was made.

Beth Jacob Executive Rabbi Kalman Topp declined to speak to the Boiling Point, while associate Rabbi Adir Posey could not be reached.  Shul president Jack Fenigstein was repeatedly called, but he did not answer or respond to the Boiling Point’s request for an interview. 

Mr. Jess Dolgin, the incoming Beth Jacob president, was reached but also declined to comment.

Mr. Marc Rohatiner, a member of both Beth Jacob’s and Shalhevet’s boards, hosted Rabbi Rosenblatt for lunch and a class at his house on Shabbat that weekend, but said he had no idea of the allegations until he read the article in the Times.

“I have no knowledge of anyone having a hint of this — I would be very surprised if anyone did,” said Mr. Rohatiner.  “If we knew about the article coming out, never in a million years would we have had him.”

Rabbi Eli Broner, Beth Jacob’s youth director, was also surprised.

“I’m upset that I didn’t know about it,” said Rabbi Broner.  “I don’t think that Beth Jacob would have brought someone like that and put our children at risk had they known that story.”

Shalhevet Judaic Studies teacher Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg thought that most people had heard stories about Rabbi Rosenblatt.

“Within the rabbinic circles, like at Yeshiva University and among my peers at college, I think a lot of people had known about the rumors but not necessarily everyone had been personally affected,” Rabbi Schwarzberg said.“I just know this was in the larger Orthodox rabbinic world.”

But Mr. Rohatiner said since no one knew about the allegations in the article, there had been no impropriety by Beth Jacob.

“On the basis of what I know, which is that no one had any inkling or knowledge of the issue, then there was absolutely no negligence,” said Mr. Rohatiner. “Most people in the Jewish community didn’t know anything about this.”

Current and former Los Angeles rabbis speaking both on and off the record agreed that Rabbi Rosenblatt’s behavior was known among rabbis. Former Rosh Kehilla of Yavneh and current Rabbi at Beth Avraham Yosef of Toronto, Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin had not heard rumors himself, but after reading the Times article he learned that others had known.

“There were people who were aware that Rabbi Rosenblatt was in the habit of taking rabbinic interns, playing racquetball with them, and then going into the sauna afterwards,” said Rabbi Korobkin.  

“There were some people who were completely comfortable with it, and some people who were uncomfortable with it.” 

Rabbi Schwarzberg said he would have been uncomfortable with Rabbi Rosenblatt speaking at Shalhevet based on what he knew of him even before reading the article.

“I think there are a lot of great people to have come speak to our students, and I don’t see the reason why we would want to bring someone that is even suspect of inappropriate behavior towards children,” said Rabbi Schwarzberg. “From my end, I would not see the value of bringing someone like him here.”

Despite the controversy, many — including Rabbi Schwarzberg — agree that Rabbi Rosenblatt is a Torah scholar.

“He is very smart, he is very charismatic,” said Rabbi Schwarzberg.  “He is someone who I really like talking to.” 

“He’s a tremendous, tremendous Rabbi — tremendous talmid chacham,” said Reb Weissman.

After hearing him speak multiple times and hosting him for Shabbat lunch, Mr. Rohatiner felt likewise.

“I enjoyed having him over for Shabbat,” said Marc Rohatiner. “I learned a lot from him.”

According to media reports, Rabbi Rosenblatt has said he believes that he did not do anything wrong, but on the advice of his attorney, he is not publicly responding to the specific allegations.

“If any of you feel that my behavior, even if innocent, was inappropriate, I apologize to those affected,” Rabbi Rosenblatt wrote in a letter to his congregants. Excerpts of the letter were published in the Jewish Daily Forward.

“I want to assure you however that it was never my intention to cause any harm, nor did I ever do anything that was unlawful,” Rabbi Rosenblatt continued.  “If my silence has been construed as my agreeing with my accusers, nothing could be further from the truth.”

According to the Times, the Bronx district attorney’s office is asking anyone with information to come forward. 

“If something happened within the statute of limitations, we will investigate,” Bronx district attorney office spokeswomen Terry Raskin told the paper.

Meanwhile, the New York Jewish Week reported June 9 that Rabbi Rosenblatt might be leaving his post at Riverdale Jewish Center, after the shul’s board voted 34-8 to seek a financial settlement with him do he would step down.

Rabbi Schwarzberg said that in any case, the issue needs to be considered more broadly.

“Our community really needs to start thinking about how we prevent any type of sexually inappropriate behavior,” Rabbi Schwarzberg said, “or any type of inappropriate behavior from our rabbinate.”

This article won the 2016 Sweepstakes Award for News Writing in the Quill & Scroll International Honorary Journalism Society competition judged by the American Society of News Editors.