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‘I Was 13 When Marc Gafni’s Abuse Began’

With all the accounts that have come out about Marc Gafni, the former rabbi and spiritual guru, you may wonder what more I have to offer. But this story is not over, even if Gafni never teaches or abuses again.

Right now there are children in the Jewish world, and in other communities, who are being abused and forced into silence. Their parents and teachers don’t know what is happening.

I know, because it happened to me. I am the woman Gafni molested when she was 13 years old. This is the first time I am telling my story in my own name.

If these children are lucky, someone will notice there is something wrong. But too often, the police are not involved, and these children are unlikely to be protected.

I wasn’t.

These children will grow up, and it may take years before they figure out how to speak the unspeakable, until they have the strength and courage to overcome the pressure to be silent. And by then, their ability to seek legal recourse may have expired.

I was silenced before the abuse even began.

I was 13 years old when Marc Gafni appeared at my parents’ Shabbat table.

This was early September 1980, and Gafni, who went by the name Mordechai Winiarz at the time, was a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University. He was 19 or 20 years old, and a friend of my sister’s had invited him over. He offered to tutor me in Talmud, a new subject for girls entering ninth grade in yeshiva high school, as I was. It seemed like a friendly gesture, and so I agreed to meet him a week later.

After our first lesson, he proceeded to tell me how “special” I was, and that he really liked me. I got a weird feeling about this, but, being inexperienced with adult men, I didn’t have a clue how to respond. Soon he was not only showering me with attention, but also earnestly insisting that I keep our friendship a secret. He said that if my parents knew about it, they would blame me for associating with him, and that I would be shamed in my community. I didn’t understand why. He hadn’t touched me yet, but I now see that he was grooming me into being silent and fearful. He convinced me that I had to be loyal to him and “not tell” about how he felt about me. In retrospect, I see that he was manipulating me, had hooked me into an emotional trap, ensuring that I would not tell my parents or teachers.

Then he asked my parents if he could regularly stay at our house over Shabbat, because he wanted to be able to walk to a synagogue in our part of the city. He was a religious man from Y.U., and my parents had no idea they should be suspicious, so they agreed.

Sara Kabakov as she appeared in a school yearbook photo. Image by Courtesy of Sara Kabakov

Gafni slept in my brothers’ room, which was near mine. My parents’ bedroom was on the far side of our apartment. It was then that he started coming into my room after I had fallen asleep, and waking me up. I remember clearly that when he tried to touch me, I pushed him away, repeatedly. I remember saying “No!” over and over again. No one had talked to me about sexual abuse, but I remember knowing intuitively, with every cell of my body, that this was wrong.

This pattern repeated itself, from the fall of 1980 through the spring of 1981. I became a girl disconnected from the world around her, inhabiting instead one full of contradiction and betrayal. I was trapped in a horrible situation with no way out that I could see. If I told, I would be blamed and shamed for what had happened.

Each morning after being molested, I would wake up and walk into the living room, and see him wildly shuckling, rocking back and forth while beating his chest. He said he was doing teshuvah, repenting for what he had done the night before, and he told me that I should join him in doing teshuvah, too. I didn’t pray or do teshuvah, but just stared at him in disbelief. He really believed that I was a partner in sin. And then it would happen again: After every fervent bout of repentance, he would wake me up in the middle of the night the following week.

My parents were not aware that this abuse was happening, and did not understand the intricate and terrifying hold this man had on my mind. It was also a time of upheaval in my family. My mother had recently recovered from breast cancer, bravely surviving a year of chemotherapy. My family was in the wake of terror, knowing we could have lost her. I understand now that child predators target families in crisis, because a family’s guard is down.

The abuse finally ended in the late spring of that year. I was 14. He called me on the phone one day to tell me that he would no longer be coming over. He realized that what he really needed was to get married soon, and that this would give him a proper outlet for his sexuality.

It’s hard to describe the complex emotions I felt in that moment. My molester had finally decided to stop abusing me, to leave me alone, to move on. You might imagine that I would feel great relief; in fact, the full weight of the abuse I had endured in silence came crashing down on me. I was left with this horrible experience, yet with no one to talk to about it, with no language to express it. And he was retreating not because I had somehow managed to make him stop, but because he decided it just wasn’t worth the risk anymore. He was terrified that he would do more to me and get me pregnant; then there would be no way to keep his secret.

Yet I also felt elated that I had survived and that the psychological reign of my abuser was over. I would no longer be badgered by Gafni’s teshuvah rhetoric, would no longer be forced to hear about his tormented struggle with his perverse sexuality and his Judaism. I would no longer be woken up from sleep, no longer have to fight, and fail, to keep him away from my body.

But I was no longer part of the normal, oblivious world of my friends and classmates. I was now set apart from them in a way that none of them knew or, as far as I could imagine, would ever know. I could not feel connected to anyone, or to my school or synagogue.

The spiritual world of my earlier childhood had been taken from me. Shabbat was now connected to a nightmare. The concept of teshuvah was forever corrupted for me. I began to see hypocrisy and absurdity in a world that I once innocently felt was home. I was no longer anchored.

In 1980, post-traumatic stress disorder had just been recognized. It was far from being a household word. Yet it was happening in my brain and body.

A few weeks after Gafni’s phone call, my ninth-grade year was close to ending. I knew I had to talk about what had happened. I knew I needed help. My wonderful English teacher, who had a life beyond the high-pressured and judgmental world of my yeshiva high school, was the only person it seemed safe to approach.

Image by Courtesy of Sara Kabakov

One day, I got up the courage to tell her. We were riding in the elevator and suddenly the other kids got off, leaving me alone with her.

“Something bad happened to me. With a man,” I said, and started to cry, feeling my face heat up.

Maybe I said it too quietly. The elevator door opened and she stepped out, then turned back to look at me. She said, “Are you okay?”

There were people walking behind her, and then around us.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” I said.

The elevator door closed with me in it, and her outside. I never gained the courage to approach her again.

A few weeks later, at a Shabbat retreat with my youth group, NCSY, I was talking to one of the counselors, a man in his 20s. The topic of Gafni came up.

I somehow found the courage to say to him, “You know, Mordechai came into my room at night when he stayed at my house for Shabbat.”

The counselor looked completely embarrassed and uncomfortable.

He said — nothing. But his expression communicated a clear message: Don’t speak about this.

I was 18 when I finally tried again. This time, I told my parents.

They were shocked, enraged and unprepared for how to respond. They were angry with themselves for being “duped” by Gafni, angry that this had happened in their home without them knowing. I remember seeing the guilt and immense pain on their faces. Their initial words — “How could you let him do that to you?” — echoed in my head for years to come. They had grown up in the 1930s and ’40s, when sexual assault was not only not spoken about, but also often considered the fault of promiscuous women. While they were the most loving and compassionate parents, they did not know how to say what every parent in that situation should say: “This was not your fault. A crime was done to you. We are so sorry.” They did not know how to help me take action to put Gafni out of circulation then and there.

But it was okay, because I had made a discovery. I had found a steel box in my heart. I took the nightmare and locked it in there. I was determined to move on. More than anything, I wanted to feel free, happy and normal. I wanted to leave this dark world that I could not even explain, and get away.

When I was 23 — the age past which, according to New York state law , a person who suffers abuse as a minor loses the ability to press charges — I was still trying to get away. I had graduated from college and was bicycling across Canada with a friend from high school. This was a time of adventure and escape. I was unable to think about what had happened to me, the damage it had done to my spirit and my ability to connect closely to people.

Little did I know that if a survivor of abuse is not able to break the silence at the transitional, vulnerable age of 23, she will never have the chance for justice.

The statute of limitations ensures that the abusers will be able to terrorize more children.

Attempts to revoke the New York‘s statute of limitations have been resisted by the strategic alliance between the Catholic Church and Agudath Israel of America, a group representing ultra-Orthodox Jews. Both have an eye on the cost of an outpouring of old allegations once that statute is lifted. But sadly, they are not concerned with how the law as it stands today keeps abusers in place, and keeps children unprotected. When the chief concern within religious communities is to maintain the status quo and not make waves in the media, we cannot depend on those communities to be looking out for children’s best interest.

Over the years, when I told people about the abuse I endured at Gafni’s hands, many asked, “Why didn’t you tell anyone?” That’s a good question. But a better question is what happened when I did tell. It was almost as if I had told no one. People in the Jewish community who had the power and stature to make the abuse stop did not step up.

It was not until my later 20s that I was finally able to talk about the sexual and spiritual abuse. I began to understand that I had an obligation to keep trying to speak out, to protect other women. But what I had to say was not what the Jewish world wanted to hear.

In 1994, I wrote a letter to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who had ordained Gafni, and told him my story. I never received a response. (Riskin since rescinded Gafni’s ordination.)

During those years, I was able to make connections with other abuse survivors and learn more about the mechanism of sexual abuse of minors. I also knew that Gafni was circulating in the Jewish world, and I worried that he was continuing to abuse women who had nowhere to turn.

Then in 2004, Gary Rosenblatt. editor and publisher of The Jewish Week of New York, interviewed me for an article in his newspaper. The subhead above the section where I was quoted anonymously was, “In Love or Abusive?” To him, it was a question to ponder. The cost of telling my story was to have it subtly discredited.

He wrote of Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, who said he “found no evidence of wrongdoing.” He quoted Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, leader of the Jewish Renewal movement, who described Gafni’s alleged abuses as “fly specks in pepper,” which you can always find if you look closely enough.

Similarly, Rabbi Saul Berman and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin defended Gafni, saying, in Rosenblatt’s words, that they had “heard no credible reports against him of improper behavior in the past 15 years or so.” (All these rabbis have since renounced Gafni.)

While I had mustered up the courage to recount my horrific experiences in interviews with Rosenblatt, some of the most respected leaders of the day simply dismissed my claims.

At this point, I was 38, and finally ready to move forward on legal grounds. And this is when I discovered that I had no recourse. It was 15 years too late.

At 13, at 14, at 18, at 23, I was not able to stand against my entire world and pursue justice. It took learning how to stand up for myself, and learning how people should be treated in caring relationships, to enable me to speak up about Gafni’s abuse. I also had to work to reclaim my spiritual home in Judaism. Every survivor has to fight her way back to health. It took me a long time.

There is no way to know when and how that will happen for any individual. So who is to say when the deadline should be for a survivor to speak out?

I hope the Gafni story is over, but I have no doubt there are other Gafnis out there — spiritual leaders and teachers who should not have access to children and teens. Gafni, like many others, has escaped punishment because of a law that needs to be changed. How many young, abused people are right now wondering how to formulate the language for what is happening to them? No one knows when they will be ready to speak — or when New York state, and the Jewish world, will give them a chance.


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