Marc Gafni, a once-promising Jewish leader dogged by allegations of sexual improprieties stretching back years, has returned to the public eye as a leader of a California think tank.
But his stunning re-emergence, trumpeted in a recent New York Times article, has elicited a new wave of condemnations from Jewish leaders.
Rabbi David Ingber, an influential Renewal rabbi in New York who once studied with Gafni but has long since severed ties, says anyone who knows Gafni has a responsibility to warn others about him.
“We are calling for other organizations to pull their support for him,” said Ingber. “We did not do enough before to warn people about this person. I feel responsible. I am implicated.”
Ingber organized a petition of denouncement, which carries the names of around 100 other Jewish leaders, including rabbis Donniel Hartman, Avi Weiss, Sharon Kleinbaum, Ebn Leader and Joseph Telushkin. The petition specifically names Whole Foods, whose co-founder and CEO, John Mackey, is on the board of Gafni’s think tank. Posted on December 30, it now has more than 2,500 signatories.
Aleph, an umbrella organization for the Jewish Renewal movement, where Gafni was once a popular figure, also issued a statement. “The latest attempted re-emergence of Marc Gafni as self-described spiritual leader galvanizes all who care about genuine spirituality to stand up for high ethical standards,” the group wrote. “Marc Gafni is not a rabbi or spiritual leader recognized by Aleph.”
Gafni, 55, told the Forward that he no longer sees himself as part of the organized Jewish community and was seemingly unconcerned with the pushback from religious leaders.
“I am not associated with the [Jewish] community in any official or unofficial way,” Gafni said, speaking over the phone in California. “I don’t publically identify or practice as a rabbi,” but “I draw on the rabbinic lineage every day, it’s what inspires me.”
And Gafni said his latest foray, the latest in his decades-long career, should not be seen as a threat to anyone.
“I’ve left the spiritual teaching world and am functioning as the president of an activist think tank, which is writing a new set of books which are committed to evolving the source code of culture.”
Gafni was born Mordechai Winiarz in 1960 to Holocaust survivors in Massachusetts. He attended Orthodox yeshivas in the New York area and emerged as a popular youth leader in his twenties. The first reports of sexual impropriety, which came to light in a 2004 article in the New York Jewish Week by Gary Rosenblatt, date back to these early years.
The New York Jewish Week spoke with a woman who claimed a 19-year-old Gafni had “repeatedly sexually assaulted” her beginning in 1980, when she was 13. “He told me that if I told anyone, I would be shamed in the community,” she told the newspaper.
No criminal charges were ever filed and Gafni said that this was a consensual relationship. “We have a very different understanding of what happened,” he said.
In that same 2004 article Rosenblatt cites another example, from 1986, when Gafni was accused of having relations with a 16-year-old female student from a youth group he led who was staying at his home in New York City. Gafni “was then 25 and married” and Judy Mitzner claimed that he “abused her sexually on two occasions.” At that time the age of consent in New York state was 17.
Charges were never filed in that case either and Gafni also claims that the relationship was consensual, although he concedes, including in an interview with the Forward in late December, it was a “mistake.”
“She was highly initiatory,” Gafni said. “I take full responsibility for that mistake. I worked with thousands of kids as a youth leader and it happened once.”
The woman in that case recently wrote on her personal website that she felt Gafni took advantage of her.
“I was underage, he was an authority figure, my teacher and at that point my guardian,” the woman, now called Judy Mitzner Rogers, wrote recently. “[The] rabbinate at the time told us all to keep it quiet – that it would be handled internally … [They didn’t] want to cast a disparaging light upon the Jewish community.”
Two years later — and after a brief stint as a pulpit rabbi in Florida — Gafni moved to Israel and served as rabbi in a West Bank settlement. Like many immigrants, he dropped his given last name for a Hebrew one.
It was in Israel that Gafni emerged as an influential teacher. Like colleagues in the Renewal movement, he taught an open and egalitarian approach to Judaism, but one grounded in traditions of Orthodox Judaism. Around 2000, he founded an experimental spiritual community called Bayit Chadash in Tel Aviv. He married his third wife, cultivated his community and hosted an Israeli television show; Gafni contributed to progressive Jewish outlets including Tikkun Magazine.
“I’ve been deemed a bit of a maverick,” he wrote in one of his most popular books. “I prefer to define myself as ‘post-denominational’ for I’ve learned that if you’re going to meld worlds you can’t be molded into only one.”
Gafni’s career had taken off. But in 2004, the searing Jewish Week article detailed those early encounters in New York and things began to crack apart. Still, several prominent Jewish leaders came to his defense.
And then, in 2006, several female members of Gafni’s Israeli community came forward to say that Gafni had affairs with each of them. In the recent interview, Gafni told the Forward that upon returning from a trip to the U.S. he found Bayit Chadash in turmoil. The Israeli police had been contacted, Gafni was told, and were investigating allegations of sexual harassment made against him. Within days, he left the country. “I was the subject of false complaints that took down ten years of my life,” Gafni said.
“People trusted everything he said,” Rosenblatt remembered. “Then things began to unravel.”
Gafni’s supporters, including prominent rabbis like Arthur Green and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, started to abandon him.
“We are particularly disturbed at the thought that there might be women who let themselves fall under Mordechai Gafni’s sway partially because they saw our names associated with his, and thus trusted him in part because of us,” the two wrote in a letter to The Jewish Week.
More condemnations rolled out. Elat Chayyim, a popular educational program associated with the Renewal movement where Gafni had taught, announced he would be barred from teaching. The chair wrote: “Although these relationships were apparently consensual, there is no place for relations like this between a rabbi and his students or between an employer and his employees.”
The spiritual community in Israel folded. Gafni issued a statement to calm the “lynch mob,” he said, and take “spiritual responsibility” for what he saw as the failure of his community. “I am sick. I need to acknowledge that sickness and to get help for it,” he wrote at the time.
Gafni now lashes out at other Jewish leaders over the whole incident.
Aleph “assumed the worst because they wanted to assume the worst,” Gafni said. “I was in some sense a threat to their system, I was giving ordination privately… I was building a system that was a creative system, that wasn’t subject to them.”
After the controversy, Gafni disappeared from the Jewish world. He moved to Utah and wrote a draft of a book on “false sexual claims.” Gafni remembered reaching out to colleagues in the Renewal establishment who once supported him. “I spent a few years in intense pain beyond imagination with a feeling of betrayal,” he said. “I felt socially raped.”
In 2010, he formed an “activist think tank” called The Center for Integral Wisdom, which draws from many disciplines, like spirituality, economics and “conscious capitalism.” Members of that center are now among his most vocal supporters. Mackey, of Whole Foods, called Gafni “a bold visionary and catalytic voice.”
His reemergence with such high-profile supporters convinced Gafni’s detractors to speak out.
“Real people have suffered from his pathology and real people have been silenced while Gafni lied and covers up his sickness,” Ingber wrote in an online post. “Gafni convinces people to defend him (or they feel compelled to do so) and so the game goes.”
“When he spoke, everyone believed him,” Rosenblatt recalled of Gafni’s earlier days in the Jewish community. “He keeps shedding one outfit and showing up in another,” said Rosenblatt. “But it’s the same guy.”
Contact Sam Kestenbaum at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @skestenbaum
Sam Kestenbaum is a contributing editor and former staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum.