Petition against ex-rabbi Gafni gains Jewish community support

In 2015, a film about journalists on the investigative team at the Boston Globe shone a light on abuse in the Catholic Church.
January 6, 2016

In 2015, a film about journalists on the investigative team at the Boston Globe shone a light on abuse in the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, the Jewish community in 2015 read news of rabbinic abuse and scandal. And now, several articles are shining a fresh light on former rabbi Marc Gafni and his three decades of incidents involving sexual misconduct and abuse of rabbinic power.

Previously known as both Marc Winiarz and Mordechai Gafni, he is preparing to once again reinvent himself, this time in the New Age space, as co-founder of the Center for Integral Wisdom (CIW). But with the new articles and a petition circulating that has been embraced by clergy and other Jewish leaders — and amplified by the Internet — multiple victims, as well as their friends and families, are coming forward and sharing stories. If you work or live in the Jewish world, you don’t have to reach very far into your social network to find someone with a personal Gafni story to tell.

The first two of the recent articles appeared in The New York Times and Tablet Magazine, both by Mark Oppenheimer, followed by subsequent pieces in the New York Daily News, Haaretz, Religion News Service, the Jewish Daily Forward, Jewschool and other venues. Together they create an Internet rabbit hole: Click on one and you’ll find two others, including the Jewish Journal’s coverage: In a sidebar to a New York Jewish Week piece by Gary Rosenblatt in October 2004, Julie Gruenbaum Fax, then the Journal’s religion editor, interviewed longtime Stephen Wise Temple Rabbi Eli Herscher about Gafni; in 2006, Fax covered the cancellation of an event featuring Gafni at Stephen Wise Temple. The Journal also reprinted Rosenblatt’s 2006 piece noting that Gafni had been ousted for misconduct from the leadership of Bayit Chadash, a Tel Aviv-based prayer and study group co-founded by Gafni, as well as a 2008 report by JTA’s Ben Harris about Gafni seeking to relaunch his career.

Gafni no longer holds his rabbinic titles: Rosenblatt reported in his 2004 article that Gafni had “returned” his semicha to his teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, “to spare his former teacher any further embarrassment.” In 2006, the now-late Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi revoked the semicha he had given Gafni. More recently, ALEPH, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, released a statement, noting that, “at no time did Gafni teach ALEPH ordination students or represent the Jewish Renewal Movement — nor will he.” 

The Petition

Rabbi David Ingber, founder and spiritual director of Romemu (“Judaism for body, mind and spirit,” according to its website), has deep roots in the renewal movement. While he was rabbi-in-residence at Elat Chayyim Retreat Center, he witnessed Gafni seduce several students, Ingber said in a phone interview with the Jewish Journal. With Gafni poised to re-establish himself in yet another position of spiritual power at the CIW, Ingber launched an online petition calling on Gafni’s current supporters — including Whole Foods, the Esalen Institute and others — to “Stop Marc Gafni from Abusing Again.” 

“Marc Gafni has left a trail of pain, suffering, and trauma amongst the people and congregations who were unfortunate to have trusted him,” the petition (in part) reads. “He has abused his extraordinary intellectual gifts and charisma to harm many who came to him in search of spiritual guidance and teaching. He has used professional alliances to legitimize himself by association, and thereby be able to continue creating more harm. As a result, Marc Gafni is neither trusted, respected, nor welcome to teach virtually anywhere in Judaism.” 

Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman of the Jewish Mindfulness Network in Los Angeles, one of the initial 109 clergy members and Jewish leaders who signed Ingber’s petition, said Gafni’s “destructive reach” was “widespread and painful.”

“It’s all there in the comments, from Jerusalem to Canada to Florida to New York to California to Alaska, people who were either a victim or were close to someone abused by him,” Zimmerman said in a phone interview.

As of press time, the petition had garnered almost 2,500 signatures; many who read the comments will likely recognize names from their own networks. 

“There were articles about him for years; until now, there wasn’t any one place for all these disparate communities to come together and speak out,” Zimmerman said.

“The rabbis should have done something about this years ago,” Ingber said. “I’m not surprised that this many people were enraged: We are living in an age of Facebook and petitions that go viral. It’s a remarkably settling and unsettling feeling, to watch something gain speed this quickly, the surge of voices. It is a testimony to the power of the Internet, to have this kind of platform.”

Gafni is also using the Internet’s power to spin his own new version of himself. His website identifies him as “Dr. Marc Gafni, Visionary Philosopher, Author, and Social Innovator” (he has a doctorate from Oxford), and includes a “Facts about Marc Gafni” page that begins, “If you have heard of troubling stories on the internet about Marc Gafni, this page is for you. It sets the record straight in relation to the internet distortions about Marc Gafni,” linking to accolades from Center for Integrated Wisdom co-founder Ken Wilber and frequent collaborator Sally Kempton. Next to a photo of Gafni are the words: “We live in a world of outrageous pain, and the only response to outrageous pain is outrageous love.”

“Now that John Mackey [the Whole Foods co-founder who supports Gafni’s Center for Integral Wisdom] is in business with him, it’s time for the non-Jewish spiritual world to learn about who he really is,” Ingber said. “In my opinion, Gafni’s a hardwired sociopath narcissist who has wreaked havoc wherever he’s been a teacher.”

During the three-year period when Gafni and Ingber knew each other, Ingber estimated that Gafni had been sleeping with 15-20 women located across the U.S. and in Israel, all while claiming to be a master teacher on intimacy and relationships. 

Ingber added that Gafni has always been “a master manipulator and triangulator,” who created “an atmosphere of absolute fear and terror” so that victims would fear “that he’s going to expose you for something.” 

In the Times of Israel, a woman identifying herself as Gafni’s third ex-wife spoke out about the verbal abuse, violent outbursts and infidelity during her marriage. “How can it be that there is zero condemnation in this spineless article?” she wrote, criticizing The New York Times report. “Just quotes of excuse from high-power supporters. Just the last word given to the abuser. Just another free pass to the genius caught with his pants down. I am furious for the bruised dozens of victims. Furious for my nightmares that still won’t end. Please God protect us from
the smiling sociopaths whose hands drip with candy.”

Many Gafni accounts speak of his charisma, but Ingber said charisma alone isn’t the problem — that “power plus pathology equals pain” and is “a recipe for disaster.” 

But in Gafni’s view, he’s the victim. The New York Times piece included one story about Gafni at age 19: He had sexual contact with a 13-year-old girl, who said — then and now — that it was not consensual; he says they were in love, adding, “She was 14 going on 35, and I never forced her.” 

In the Daily News article, Gafni calls the attacks against him “sexual McCarthyism” and “social media rape,” repossessing and appropriating the language of sexual violation from his victims to reframe the conversation. 

What’s Next

Rabbis across the spectrum seem to now be taking note that Gafni — and future potential abusers of rabbinic power — is their problem, too. 

“It is a watershed moment, for a larger conversation about abuse of power in the Jewish community, and within the world of Alternative Spiritualities,” Ingber said.

Esalen, at press time, has not caved to the petition pressure. On the Whole Foods website, posts previously containing a video series featuring Gafni now feature a message from Mackey noting his decision to remove the videos from the Whole Foods site — “to be consistent with the position that this is indeed strictly a personal relationship” — but keep them available at the Center for Integral Wisdom site. 

Zimmerman credited Oppenheimer and other journalists for bringing these stories new visibility. 

“There wouldn’t be a petition if it weren’t for the outrage their new articles sparked,” Zimmerman said. 

Zimmerman, who became a rabbi at 47, said rabbinical seminaries need to “better understand what happens when young, bright rabbis are elevated on pedestals before they are emotionally capable and ready,” adding, “it can be a setup for a misuse of power.”

Zimmerman also cautioned that parents need to teach their kids to “pay attention to that voice inside,” she said. “Do not trust anyone — even a rabbi or teacher — who tells you to stay silent about something that doesn’t feel right. Learning to trust their internal feelings about comfort can help them [self-] guard against being a victim.”

But Zimmerman also sees hope in the wider community’s interest. “When 100 rabbis across the spectrum agree on an issue, then, wow. I feel hopeful that there are so many people who have had enough of rabbinic abuse of power.”

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