October 20, 2018

Whole Foods protesters aim to pressure CEO to sever ties with alleged sex abuser

When the new 365 by Whole Foods Market — a more affordable outpost of the luxury grocery chain — opened the morning of May 25 in Silver Lake, the atmosphere in the parking lot was palpably upbeat: pedestrians hustled around clutching reusable totes and a DJ was blasting classic rock and soul.

Yet while many Angelenos couldn’t wait to hit the carefully orchestrated organic salad bar, a handful of activists set up on the sidewalk to remind shoppers of a more controversial side to Whole Foods. They were protesting the company and its co-founder/co-CEO, John Mackey — specifically, his relationship to Marc Gafni, a former rabbi who has jumped from one spiritual movement to another, leaving a trail of sexual assault allegations in his wake.

Until March of this year, Mackey served as the co-chairman of the board of directors for Gafni’s newest venture, an “activist think tank” based in the Bay Area called the Center for Integral Wisdom. Mackey also reportedly hosted board meetings at his personal ranch in Texas.

Neither Gafni nor Whole Foods responded to the Journal’s email request for comment .

“It’s important for people like John Mackey to break the silence,” Rabbi Jill Zimmerman, founder of The Jewish Mindfulness Network, told the Journal. “There were lots of people who didn’t speak up who were able to speak up.”

Zimmerman was one of the leaders of Wednesday’s protest, which coincided with a parallel demonstration at a Whole Foods in New York. In Los Angeles, Zimmerman was joined by a few sexual abuse activists who propped up posters along Glendale Boulevard that read “Stand Up, Speak Out,” and schooled passersby on Mackey’s corporate responsibility and Gafni’s history of alleged sexual abuse.

Gafni, born Mordechai Winiarz, grew up in an Orthodox home, became ordained as a rabbi and went on to teach at a youth outreach program in New York. Two women came forward to say Gafni had sexually assaulted them as teenagers, and he later had his ordination revoked. Gafni has been married and divorced three times, accused of plagiarism and tried to start multiple mystical and spiritual movements in the U.S. and Israel, only to have them fall apart at the seams because of lingering distrust and continued accusations.

Some have alleged Gafni has managed to dodge criminal charges because it’s common for victims to report abuse years after it occurs, and by then there is often no legal recourse due to the statute of limitations. Just because Gafni was never arrested doesn’t mean he’s innocent, said Nancy Levinevolunteer protest coordinator for the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse (NAASCA).

“The argument of ‘Oh, I was never charged,’ is not a great argument,” Levine said.

In December 2015, some members of the Jewish community took matters into their own hands. New York-based Rabbi David Ingber — who knew Gafni personally and said he saw him seduce several students first-hand — launched an online petition calling for Mackey, Whole Foods and other Gafni supporters to cut “financial and institutional ties” with the former rabbi. The petition stated that the many allegations made against Gafni “violate the ethical standards and sacred responsibility which governs the relationship between religious teacher and student.”

The petition garnered more than 3,500 signatures in less than six months, and since its debut, Mackey and Whole Foods seem to be quietly distancing themselves from Gafni. But that’s not enough for activists like Bill Murray, founder of NAASCA.

“They’ve just decided to say, ‘No comment,’ ” he said

In May, Mackey removed a seven-part video series that he recorded with Gafni from the Whole Foods blog. He replaced it with a statement about his relationship with the former rabbi, claiming it was “conducted strictly” in his personal life and that his connection to Gafni “does not represent an endorsement or support for either Mr. Gafni or the Center for Integral Wisdom by Whole Foods Market.”

However, a link to the videos, available on the Center for Integral Wisdom’s website, remains on Whole Foods’ blog. And Mackey’s headshot and endorsing testimonial — he calls Gafni a “bold visionary and catalytic voice” — is still featured on the homepage of Gafni’s personal website.  

The Center for Integral Wisdom posted a lengthy online public statement in response to “the current attacks” on Gafni.

“Based on our careful review of extensive documentary evidence, numerous professional evaluations, and our collective experiences with Dr. Gafni, we fully trust that the claims of sexual harassment and abuse are false, and that other claims against him are maliciously exaggerated,” it says.

The statement goes on to explain that Gafni’s lawyer has advised him not to comment on the issues “given the defamatory nature of the false accusations.” It encourages readers to visit Gafni’s personal website or read one of his books to get a deeper sense of his character.

If Mackey and Whole Foods won’t take a stand against Gafni for ethical reasons, Murray hopes they’ll consider their stockholders and the prospective financial damages of being associated with an alleged sexual abuser. After all, Whole Foods has plans to open these “quality-meets-value” 365 markets throughout California and the rest of the country — and protesters hope to be right there with them along the way.

“They would like to have that middle class demographic group as their customer base, and they’re risking not only not acquiring it, but damaging what they already got,” Murray said.