The dangers of inaction: From the mikveh to the sauna

American Jewish institutions have failed again. The latest installment involves Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt at the Riverdale Jewish Center (RJC) in New York City. Rabbi Rosenblatt has exposed his genitalia to young male congregants, including minors. He did this in the hot tub and sauna. He has also looked at their genitals. Rabbi Rosenblatt apparently considered this a way of establishing “closeness.”

The Rosenblatt case comes a few weeks after Barry Freundel, formerly the rabbi of Kesher Israel in Washington D.C., began a six and a half year prison sentence for voyeurism. Freundel recorded over 150 women using the mikveh. Just to show such problems span the denominations, Rabbi Barry Starr, previously in a Conservative synagogue near Boston, was indicted in May 2015 for robbing his own congregation to pay off an extortionist.

Four elements connect the Freundel and Rosenblatt cases: the inability to discuss rabbinic misconduct, synagogue boards that act too late, the Rabbinical Council of America’s (RCA) weak oversight of its members, and the unimaginative responses of communal professionals.

The most striking aspect of these scandals is the unwillingness to speak directly about the subject. The New York Times reported the Rosenblatt story with euphemisms for unpleasant facts. The rabbi’s display of his reproductive organs to children, and looking at theirs, is “inappropriate.” According to The Jewish Week it is “allegedly inappropriate.” Speaking with your mouth full is inappropriate. Exposing yourself to a child is perverted.

Similarly, the newspapers claim that some of the minors and young men in the sauna felt “uncomfortable” seeing Rosenblatt naked. Flying on a low-cost airline is uncomfortable. Viewing your rabbi’s testicles is disgusting.

How was Rosenblatt’s “exhibitionism” an “open secret” for close to thirty years? He has many sincere supporters because of his reputation for eloquence, pastoral work, and intelligence. The Jewish Week called him “a brilliant scholar of English literature as well as Judaic texts.” His supporters have not asked why this brilliance did not extend to those “Judaic texts” which scorn nakedness.

There was a similar pattern at Kesher Israel. There the “open secret” was that Freundel was an egomaniacal bully whose conversion candidates were mostly young and female. Nobody could have suspected that Freundel was also a voyeur. Yet at one point, Kesher Israel discussed congregational self-censorship with a draft agreement to stop lashon hara (bad language) against the rabbi.

Such indulgent boards are the second common feature of these scandals. Like Freundel, Rosenblatt’s board was keen to avoid public scandal. Unlike Freundel, elements of the RJC board and “several prominent members” understood the dangers of Rosenblatt’s behavior. Instead of firing him, these “prominent members” offered to push out Rosenblatt gently. This meant paying off Rosenblatt and concealing his misconduct. By exporting the problem, the RJC would have provided Rosenblatt with the opportunity to expose himself to a new set of young men.

Despite the revelations, the RJC is still being lenient. The RJC is offering to pay its embarrassing rabbi to go away, rather than handing him a pink slip. Thanks to The New York Times, however, there can be no cover up. Rosenblatt’s lawyer hopes “this matter can be resolved fairly and with the dignity Rabbi Rosenblatt has earned in three decades of service to the community.” Dignity is not a word usually associated with men who expose their genitals to children.

The third common element is the RCA’s clumsiness. The RCA sought to manage Rosenblatt’s proclivities instead of publicly censuring him. The organization instituted “a plan to limit his activities with his own congregation.” Quite how it could enforce this “plan” was unclear. The RJC told the RCA that Rosenblatt was complying when he was not. The RCA got the rabbi to say that he would stop the sauna visits following a complaint in 2011 that Rosenblatt was still showing his genitals to young men. There was no penalty for the rabbi defaulting on the original “plan.”

The RCA took a similar approach with Freundel. The RCA mishandled at least three complaints against Freundel: potential adultery, the solicitation of funds from converts, and using conversion candidates for unpaid work. Freundel had played a major role in drawing up the organization’s conversion guidelines. He had sought to become the RCA’s first vice president in 2012. Rabbi Mark Dratch, the RCA’s executive vice president, has protested his organization’s desire “to do the right thing.” Yet the RCA found nothing amiss or failed to act. We now know that Freundel was an adulterer and a criminal.

What the RCA wants is power without responsibility. The RCA still pursues Freundel’s policy of monopolizing Orthodox conversions and relations with the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. The conversion process requires that RCA rabbis treat people decently and honestly. They should not, like Freundel, exploit converts’ vulnerability. Yet the RCA disclaims any meaningful supervision of its members. Dratch has declared that: “we don’t have a lot of hands-on oversight.” Dratch has also explained that “every congregation contracts with its own rabbis…There are situations we’re not aware of on a local level. We’re a rabbinical membership organization; we don’t have the re­sources to be the policemen of the entire American rabbinate.” The RCA can police conversions, just not the rabbis who carry them out. The RCA has excluded rabbis from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, but has included Freundel and Rosenblatt.

Finally, the “communal professionals” have not grasped that the problem is ultimately political. Instead, their proposed remedies involve psychology (rabbis need to “look inward”), social work (organizations should “cede power to outside experts to monitor the behavior of rabbis”), and management theories (synagogues should not be so nervous about “real feedback loops”). Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union (OU), contains an article “Rabbis At Risk: What Can Be Done?” in which Dratch suggests rabbis need “better peer-to-peer networks and mentoring.” Rosenblatt was a speaker in one such OU mentoring program for over a decade.

All of these ideas will fail. In particular, more governance, oversight mechanisms, and psychological handholding are worthless if rabbis and boards ignore them. American Jews should apply the civic spirit that motivates their professional and political lives to their religious lives. American Jews would never vote in uncontested elections. Yet they accept pre-approved slates and sole candidates in their synagogues and other communal bodies. They would never invest in a company or organization that had a board packed with the CEO’s cronies. Yet they donate to a synagogue that operates as the rabbi’s checking account, overseen by the rabbi’s friends. They would laugh at the notion of any sector of the economy regulating itself. Yet they accept religious institutions that put themselves and their members first, and the victims last.

None of this will happen until American Jews act like adults in their religious lives. If they keep behaving like children, there will be rabbis who take advantage.

About the Author
Andrew Apostolou is a historian based in Washington D.C. He has a D.Phil. in history from Oxford University and has worked on human rights campaigns in the Middle East.
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