Riverdale—It was in late February that Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, Riverdale Jewish Center’s embattled spiritual leader of 31 years, gave notice to its board that he intended to step down from his pulpit.
On April 6, RJC’s membership overwhelmingly approved the proposed retirement agreement, 352-75.
An email sent to shul members from Board President Samson Fine and VP Chaim Haas thanked those who participated in the “special meeting” and apologized “if the tone and tenor became contentious at times.”
In a follow-up email to RJC members, questions were addressed. Rabbi Rosenblatt’s retirement was effective Tuesday, April 12. “His entry into early retirement would follow a board vote to approve the agreement, including the transfer of the residence at 3039 Netherland Avenue to the rabbi.”
As first reported in The Jewish Week, Rosenblatt will receive a retirement package of some $2.1 million paid out through 2032 as well as the house and a life membership to the shul. The formerly synagogue-owned house, valued at $800,000, was to be transferred to Rosenblatt.
RJC’s rabbinic leadership will be led for the time being by Assistant Rabbi Yitzi Genack along with Senior Rabbinic Interns Shaya Katz and Mordy Prus and Junior Rabbinic Interns Scott Hoberman and Adin Rayman. Rabbi Genack is under contract through June. Visiting the shul website, rjconline.org, shows that Rosenblatt’s name has already been removed from the “About Us” section.
The email addressed the future search for a spiritual leader, indicating that RJC is beginning a process of “gathering information about its religious and spiritual needs and what it would like to see in terms of our next rabbinic leader.”
Lastly, the email affirmed that the new shul officers and trustees will be voted on at June’s annual meeting.
The recent shul meeting and subsequent approval of an early retirement package for Rabbi Rosenblatt arguably put an end to nearly a year of distraction and a loss of shul membership. These were reactions to a May 29, 2015, New York Times article reporting on the rabbi’s practice of meeting with boys and men in the sauna after a game of squash. No one ever accused Rosenblatt of touching them. The appropriateness of the rabbi’s behavior of being disrobed with others was questioned.
Rabbi Michael Stein, a board member and a former RJC assistant rabbi who worked closely with Rosenblatt, said that he was pleased that the membership supported the agreement, but noted at the same time that he will miss the rabbi’s leadership.
“The way I would characterize it is that the shul’s vote in favor of the package made sure that the rabbi was taken care of as best as possible,” said Stein. “Eighty percent of the membership voted in favor of giving him the agreement.
“It was his proposal,” added Stein. He said that there were many vocal people at the shul meeting. Some, he said, believed that Rosenblatt “didn’t deserve extra above and beyond what his contract called for, and then there were others who were asking, ‘Why give him anything? We want him to stay.’”
There were many shul members who saw this as an end of an era, according to Stein. They were, he said, “heavy hearted that he’s not going to be at the helm of the shul. A lot of people are saddened, devastated by it. The only consolation I hope is that he stays in Riverdale and is at least able to keep some of his relationships alive.
“I can’t tell you how many young rabbis and rabbis from all over the country call him asking for advice,” said Stein. “I spent many an erev yom tov with him. I spent times going over my sermons with him. Sometimes we’d be interrupted by phone calls from different rabbis from all over the country seeking his thoughts.
“Now he does not have any role in the shul; he’s now a private citizen.”
Last summer, following the New York Times article, Stein told The Jewish Link, “I know people who might have felt uncomfortable going into the sauna, but not one person was ever coerced or violated.”
Rosenblatt became the shul’s spiritual leader in 1985. He comes from a celebrated lineage. His great-grandfather was Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, a chazan of great fame.
The Times of Israel reported earlier this year that Yehuda Kurtzer, the only person cited in the original New York Times story who had experienced a sauna invitation from Rosenblatt, expressed his feelings on his stepping down in a recent Facebook post.
“Rabbi Rosenblatt has shrewdly managed his way out of this crisis with the advice of counsel, clearly managing his communications along the way, demonizing his opponents and avoiding any significant fallout,” Kurtzer wrote in a Facebook post after the congregation received the email announcing Rosenblatt’s resignation. “He has hurt his students. He has further alienated his accusers, and his continued presence in the pulpit at RJC insults the dignity of our community.”
Kurtzer chose not to comment on RJC’s approval of a retirement package for Rosenblatt.
Asher Harris, who has been friends with the rabbi since they were in yeshiva together in 1977, told The Jewish Link in March that he thought RJC had had a change of heart and wanted the rabbi to remain in place.
Harris, a Riverdale resident, said that the atmosphere at RJC was at times “dispirited, as everyone was looking over their shoulder and taking a head count.” This is in reference to the number of people who have left the shul since the New York Times’ article reporting on Rabbi Rosenblatt’s sauna meetings.
His leaving the shul, however, is going to hurt, added Harris.
“He’s been a huge part of my life,” he said. “He helped through I can’t think of how many personal issues. My wife was 8-1/2 months pregnant when her father died, and he was there for us. He was there for me when my parents passed away. He conducted my parents’ funerals. It’s just hard to envision him not being there. My children are close to him. This, for us, is not a relationship you can replace, at least not for our family.”
RJC President Fine did not return calls or an email request for comment by The Jewish Link.
By Phil Jacobs