Controversial ex-rabbi Gafni and an alleged victim square off

A media storm surrounding a disgraced former Jewish spiritual leader and current New Age thinker is either character assassination or long overdue

Marc Gafni (Shawn Jones)
Marc Gafni (Shawn Jones)

NEW YORK – Seeing a new tool in her 30-year battle for recognition and retribution, Judy Mitzner didn’t just sign the petition imploring Whole Foods to sever ties with Marc Gafni, the former Orthodox rabbi and present day spiritual teacher who is again in the news over accusations of longstanding sexual misconduct.

“I was a victim of this horrible man’s sexual, emotional, psychological and spiritual abuse,” Mitzner wrote on the petition.

The petition, a public J’accuse, has garnered over 2,700 signatures, many of them from rabbis across the United States. It states: “As a group of religious and communal leaders, we are motivated by the obligation embedded in the belief that whoever saves a single life, it is as if they have saved a whole world. Marc Gafni has left a trail of pain, suffering, and trauma amongst the people and congregations who were unfortunate to have trusted him.”

But the high-profile Gafni pooh-poohed the petition this week, telling The Times of Israel it is merely “a sad expression of herd mentality or group think, the action of the hateful mob who have no actual validated information.”

Judy Mitzner alleges she was abused by Marc Gafni in 1986, while she was a 16-year-old living in New York City. (Judy Mitzner)
Judy Mitzner alleges she was abused by Marc Gafni in 1986, while she was a 16-year-old living in New York City. (Judy Mitzner)

Now 45, Mitzner is the sole public face of the accusations against Gafni. She said this week she was the elder of two teenaged girls, aged 13 and 16, whom Gafni allegedly molested while he was working in New York City. It was 1986 and she had moved in with Gafni and his then wife to escape a troubled situation.

After the incident, which allegedly involved Gafni climbing naked into bed with her, she told her parents. They blamed her and no charges were filed against Gafni.

“The reason nobody else talks about it is because they are petrified of him. He’s a sociopath, there’s this fear of him. He was stalking me and making prank phone calls to my house for a couple years afterwards,” Mitzner said this week.

The statute of limitations on the alleged crime has passed and Mitzner remains the only one of his professed victims to speak out. However, a renewed public campaign against Gafni was kicked off by a December 25 New York Times piece, “A Spiritual Leader Gains Stature, Trailed by a Troubled Past.” Mitzner said she hopes the recent flurry of media attention and the petition will encourage others to step forward.

“I firmly believe he assaulted other kids. I was terrified from that point [after the alleged abuse] and had to talk about it,” said Mitzner.

The many incarnations of Marc Gafni

Exactly who Marc Gafni is varies depending on who is answering the question. To his supporters he’s a spiritual visionary; to his critics and alleged victims, he’s a sexual predator.

Indisputably, Gafni, 55, has reinvented himself several times throughout the decades. His most recent incarnation is as founder and director of the California-based Center for Integral Wisdom, a New Age spiritual think tank he founded in 2010.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin speaking at the Lincoln Square Synagogue. (screen capture: YouTube/JBS)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin speaking at the Lincoln Square Synagogue. (screen capture: YouTube/JBS)

In his past life he was Mordechai Winiarz, an Orthodox rabbi ordained by Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. The esteemed rabbi later completely repudiated his former student. He later changed his name to Marc Gafni and was warmly embraced and ordained in the Renewal movement.

Over the years Gafni has lived in New York City and Boca Raton, Israel and Australia, Utah and California. He’s worked as a youth leader and teacher, author and speaker. His various postings have been rife with controversy.

On New Year’s Day, one of Gafni’s three ex-wives posted a Times of Israel blog post.

In it she pleaded: “Please God, help MG undo himself. Let his inner demon loosen his grip. Let it end already. For the sake of his victims, past and future, for the sake of his own broken inner-innocence… And help the rest of us – his victims, his critics, and even his hoodwinked supporters. We have all failed. We failed by praising his genius while ignoring his demons… We failed by honoring the powerful while silencing the victims.”

While in conversation this week, Gafni, 55, admits to making mistakes in the past, he says he views the petition, the blistering semi-anonymous blog post, and several recent newspaper articles as tantamount to “sexual McCarthyism.”

Additionally, Gafni said he finds Mitzner’s continued re-telling of the story for more than three decades particularly painful. He calls her testimony “categorically false.”

‘Judy is not acting alone. She is a part of well-organized and funded social group’

“For 31 years she has been encouraged to be a victim. Judy is not acting alone. She is a part of well-organized and funded social group. She received strong social approval and reward for being a hero breaking the silence, which is ironic because she has not stopped talking about this and attacking me for decades in so many different ways, causing me and my children and friends a massive amount of substantive damage and pain,” said Gafni.

Gafni claimed he has taken a polygraph test that proves his innocence, and that there is “significant other information which supports that conclusion.”

Additionally, he claimed he has repeatedly tried to contact Mitzner “to create resolution.”

“She has always refused,” Gafni said. “I want reach out right now, as I have many times over the years through third parties, and invite Judy into a mediated conversation where we could transform this from hatred to goodness and truth and beauty.”

No day in court for Mitzner

Despite her public allegations of sexual abuse, Mitzner cannot have her case heard in a court of law.

“Because of the awful statute of limitations, no criminal charges on behalf of Judy [Mitzner] can be filed now. There are no legal consequences for what he did to Judy,” said Elizabeth Cucinotta Sorvillo, a California-based attorney and victims’ advocate who uncovered a decades-long sex abuse scandal at St. Francis Preparatory School in Queens, New York.

“But the more we shine a light on him we hope that somebody will come forward who doesn’t fall under the statute of limitations – just like happened to [Bill] Cosby,” said Sorvillo.

Elizabeth Cucinotta Sorvillo, a California-based attorney and victims’ advocate (courtesy)
Elizabeth Cucinotta Sorvillo, a California-based attorney and victims’ advocate (courtesy)

For her part, Mitzner is not optimistic. “Every time the story comes up he just moved on to another community. He keeps moving.”

So in the wake of the New York Times article, grassroots activists are using the petition to reach Gafni through a powerful friend.

The petition targets Whole Foods because John Mackey, the grocery chain’s co-founder, is chairman of the executive board of Gafni’s Center for Integral Wisdom. According to The New York Times, Mackey hosts board meetings at his Texas ranch and has posted videos of conversations between the two men on the Whole Foods website.

Mackey declined to be interviewed for this article, but Whole Foods provided this statement: “John Mackey’s involvement with Marc Gafni and the Center for Integral Wisdom is his personal business, and does not represent an endorsement or support by Whole Foods Market for either Mr. Gafni or the Center for Integral Wisdom.”

But lawyer Sorvillo took exception to this claim of separate spheres. “Whole Foods is incorrect in their statement,” Sorvillo said. “We are not just talking about a personal relationship, but a professional relationship as well. Mackey has a fiduciary responsibility to his shareholders to not associate with an alleged child molester.”

An attempted character assassination?

Gafni said news of the petition, and comments attached to it, made him “sad beyond imagination.”

“However the falsifications and distortions that abounded in the petition make it hard to fully engage whatever authentic pain there might be. The petition was organized by the same core people who organized and supported or refused to investigate the false complaints in Israel ten years ago,” Gafni said. “This was not a spontaneous explosion of outrageous for justice but a well-organized manipulation of public opinion, as part of an attempted assassination.”

‘This was not a spontaneous explosion of outrageous for justice but a well-organized manipulation of public opinion, as part of an attempted assassination’

Gafni moved to Israel in 1988. In 2000 he founded Bayit Chadash, or “New Home.” Focused on mysticism and creative worship, the center closed in 2006 after several women in the community complained of sexual and emotional abuse.

Although some critics contend that Israeli authorities once charged him, his Haifa-based attorney, Nitza Cohen, wrote in a November 29, 2015, letter: “There are no legal complaints against Marc Gafni in Israel. Not only are there no present complaints but there were never had been any complaints registered by the police against Marc Gafni. There are no closed files or anything of the sort. The complaints do not exist now and never had been existed in the past.”

Nevertheless, as allegations of sexual misconduct persist, Gafni faces continued condemnation. His rabbinical ordination was later retracted and most recently the Jewish Renewal movement publicly disavowed itself from Gafni.

“Marc Gafni is not a rabbi or spiritual leader recognized by ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. When Gafni’s ethical breaches were substantiated in 2006, ALEPH promptly condemned his behavior, banned Gafni from teaching or participating in ALEPH and Jewish Renewal contexts, and broadly warned the public about Gafni’s capacity to cause serious harm,” the movement said in a December 29 statement.

Polyamorous spiritualist Marc Gafni. (Photo by GafniMarc/Flikr CC BY-SA 2.0)
Polyamorous spiritualist Marc Gafni. (Photo by GafniMarc/Flikr CC BY-SA 2.0)

For Gafni, the statement from ALEPH was both disturbing and ironic, as he said he has not spoken to anyone in the movement for ten years.

“I have nothing to do with them. For them to distance themselves from me is like me distancing myself from Donald Trump. We have nothing to do with each other at all,” Gafni said. “So it is a sham, like the rest of this, to say they are distancing from me. Perhaps they could do something more honest or constructive instead of distancing from someone they have nothing to do with.”

In the course of conversation this week, Gafni waxed New Aged-philosophical about the current media coverage. He said the petition backfired and has hurt neither him nor his Center for Integral Wisdom. Rather, he said, it has “paradoxically, strengthened” it.

In facing this crisis, he said he and his team were “all inspired to find the best in ourselves, the most authentic integrity, commitment and fierce grace to open up to deeper levels of wisdom and courage through meeting these attacks with love and compassion.”

The question remains, however: What will dry up first — his current circle’s “love and compassion,” or his critics’ attacks?

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