Ways of Pleasantness
Case of Rabbi Mordechai Gafni (aka: Marc Gafni, Mark Gafni, Marc Winiarz, Mordechai Winiarz, Mordechai Winyarz)
Ways of Pleasantness
By Sherri Makover-Balikov
Photography By : Arik Soltan
Maariv / Sofshavua (Friday Weekend Magazine) - October 15, 2004
(Translated from Hebrew to English by Avraham Sonenthal)
Maariv Article in Hebrew
"I touched. So what"
Rabbi Mordechai Gafni, the one who smiles at you from the television, loves the sheep of his flock. So why is he associated with sexual harrasment?
Charismatic, connected, original, abhorrent to the rabbinical establishment, head of congregation "Bayit Chadash" (New Home) and possesing unabashed political ambitions. And also a big proponent of fondling and touching, out of love of the others, aparently. Rabbi Mordechai Gafni has to come to terms first of all with many episodes from his past which connect him to sexual harrasment and molestation, some of which he as emerged from unscathed, and from others injured. "I believe that everyone needs to decide where they will take a chance. And I prefer to take chances with love".
Rabbi Mordechai Gafni, head of the God fearing congregation of the movement "Bayit Chadash", receives me in an elegant shanty at his Beis Midrash in Yafo, surrounded by colorful macrame hangings, barefoot meditating girls, and five stone crystals. I greet him first but modestly, and hesitantly extend my hand. Gafni loves people fervently to the depths of his soul. "Why shake hands, sweety? Come here, give me a hug", he embraces me emotionally, drawing me to him with deep affection.
Deep in the fragrant scented bosom of Admor Gafni you will be enlightened, and which is better: a hidden tzadik who speaks to women from behind a curtain, or a joyous rabbi whose blue eyes dance and whose embrace is pure? We sit across from each other, and between us is an ancient wood table loaded with hasidic writings rich in spiritual illumination. But nonetheless despite his lofty position this righteous rabbi is concerned that I feel comfortable, and from time to time places a joyous hand on my shoulder. I am worthy. Occasionally he adds a comforting carress on my head, bent over my papers.
Putting aside his honor, but that is not how a Rabbi acts.
"According to halachah, hugging a woman without sexual intent is a legitimate possibility. Not all the rabbis agree with me, but modesty is always a contentious issue. To me, to dress in haredi clothes that are very tight, so that the skirt fits perfectly across the ass, is as if the woman is saying "fuck me" even though she is dressed modestly. In contrast to this, it is permitted for a man to hug a woman according to halachah if his sexuality comes from a deep place and is pure and flows out naturally".
Halachah permits hugging women?
"I know for a fact that Orthodox rabbis shake hands with women. Also in Israel. I won't mention names, but this includes the biggest rabbis. I saw some of them hug women. I hug all of the men and the women in my congregation, and I show this love to a 97 year old elderly woman as well as a young girl of 18. I am not prepared to live in a world without hugs. In the haredi world all sexual energy is invalid. No erotic meaning is permitted. But even the hasidic masters said that the movement during prayer is like the movement of a couple together with each other. Is it chutzpah to say this? The Baal Shem Tov himself said that prayer is coupling. I am not saying that prayer is sex, I am just pointing out that prayer is the existence of complete presence, like a woman who can only be reached through the act of love. Both during prayer and during the act of love one succeeds to be completely in th epresence of and to feel the other. To leave narrow egocentrism and to love the other."
This is how you feel when you pray?
"Every member of my congregation feels this way when they pray. We sit in pairs, men opposite women, without any regard to family, and call out the prayers. Then we look at each other deeply and lovingly in the eyes. This is not a sexual act. This is an act of love between a man and a woman in prayer. At Bayit Chadash prayer is erotic being. I'm not saying you have to exagerate it. We also have limits and prohibitions. I have heard of a religious movement that has naked communal immersion in a mikvah. This won't happen with us. With us we are all dressed and every touch is a caress of love."
Even this little bit is foriegn and strange to the Orthodox world.
"I know, I know. But I think everyone needs to decide where he takes a chance. I prefer to take chances with love."
WHY ARE THERE STORIES ABOUT HIM?
Perhaps Rabbi Gafni took chances with love a little too far, since the reason for our meeting is a stubborn wave of publicity connecting him to harrasment of a sexual nature. Let it be said immediately that the two main incidents occurred over 20 years ago, and according to the words and documentation of Gafni, they probably flow from the pursuit of a group of people jealous of his success. But it is hard to rationalize this rabbi flowing with love, when his most prominent traits are hugs and touches, and the main topics of his conversation touch on sex, eros, and erotica. At any rate, with the growth of the flourishing Torah community of Gafni, these incidents have also grown, and today they are emerging anew, becoming better known in his immediate circle and threatening to stain the name of a man that his students see as a "gadol" in Torah and Halachah.
"There are those who say Gafni has gone too far with love of the other" blushes the young head of the congregation, shaking with indignation and rustling some papers attesting to his innocence. "There are those who seek to defame me out of envy and spite, and since you can't defame a man for his ideas, then they say Rabbi Gafni is an ego maniac, and there stories about him concerning sexual exploitation. In order to destroy congregation Bayit Chadash and to distance me from the Rabbinate they bring up these old incidents everywhere and each time add new fictional details.
"We don't have any problem with the success of Rabbi Mordechai Gafni", says a rav who lives in the US (name witheld by editors). "We have a big problem with the testimony of women who have been harmed by him. I have known Gafni 30 years, and once we were friends. Even when he was very young rumors circulated about him and women and primarily young women where he exploited his rabbinical ordination to harrass and touch them sexually, but there was never any hard proof. All the complaints ended with documentation that Gafni presented attesting to his innocence.
Several years ago it became aparent that Rabbi Baruch Lanner, who was thought to be a very successful educator in New York and worked with youth, acted to molest girls for 30 years. The Jewish Week in New York (a small American weekly popular in the Jewish community of New York) succeeded to interview several girls who were hurt by Lanner and exposed his deeds of molestation. They fired him from work, brought a complaint to the police, and today this rabbi sits in jail. Right after this affair exploded, women found courage and started to tell of other rabbis that had molested them. The first was Gafni.
Three women came to Vicki Polin, an activist in the Baltimore Jewish community who deals in supporting Haredi female victims of rape and sexual violence, and the women complained about Rabbi Mordechai Gafni. Polin turned to me and to Rabbi Yosef Blau, the spiritual advisor of Yeshiva University, and we all spoke with the women and helped them through their silence, and in the end we understood that Rabbi Gafni had destroyed their lives.
After all this I distanced myself from Gafni. Prior to that I requested to meet with and speak to him. We sat together for five hours. Gafni had already established himself in Israel and was in contact with girls and women as a Torah authority. I feared for them. But Gafni said that Vicki Polin was crazy and that Rabbi Blau was crazy and that the girls were in love with him and clung to him because he wasn't prepared to get involved with them. He even compared himself to Yosef in Egypt who withstood the advances of the wife of Potiphar. And all the while he shouted that everyone is jealous of him for his success in Israel.
I said to him, `Mordechai, listen, there are many successful Rabbis in Israel, and people that are jealous of them. But why are such ugly stories told only about you?' and he didn't know how to answer. At a certain point in the conversation I looked at him and I said to him, `Gafni, you need help, you are a sick man.' He obviously didn't accept my words. I then distanced myself from him and cut off contact".
WAYS OF PLEASANTNESS
The girl from New York: "I was 13, and Gafni was 20. He offered to help me with Talmud lessons. Afterwards he started to tell me that I was very special and that he liked me. A month later he requested permission from my parents to sleep in our house. That night he entered my room and started to touch me and encouraged me to touch him. I started to cry."
Rabbi Gafni: "I was in love with a 14 year old girl. We had an amazing spiritual bond. She wrote me a letter and described in it our beautiful and delicate love. We were young and didn't do anything wrong other than flirting. You know, a little kissing and glances"
The first incident occurred 23 years ago, when Gafni was 20. "I was in love with a 14 year old girl. We had an amazing spiritual bond. She wrote me a letter and described in it our beautiful and delicate love. We were young and didn't do anything wrong other than flirting. You know, a little kissing and glances. After a year we broke up. Then I was not yet a Rabbi and I haven't heard from this girl again.
Five years ago, when congregation Bayit Chadash began to develop and to gain notice in the general public, suddenly they started to tell me that the girl was spreading lies about me and slandering me by saying I had sexually exploited her when she was young. A group of people who don' t like the friendliness and the ways of Bayit Chadash publicized these stories. When they asked for my reaction I said that as far as I can remember I was a stupid boy and in love, and she was mature beyond her age, and at any rate I didn't do anything bad to her, and in my whole life I have never attacked a woman, not sexually or in any other way."
"I was 13, and Gafni was 20", said the girl in a telephone interview from New York. "I was a little girl and didn't understand very much. Gafni offered to help me with Talmud lessons. Afterwards he started to tell me that I was very special and that he liked me. He also warned me not to speak of his love to anyone, or they would think I was crazy and imagining things.
A month later he requested permission from my parents to sleep in our house. He said he wanted to go to a synagogue in the area. That night he entered my room and woke me. He started to touch me and encouraged me to touch him. I started to cry and I pushed him away, but he was much stronger than me. He said if I told anyone he would hurt me and my parents.
He did this every week, over eight months. Every Shabat morning he would pray fervently and tell me that I needed to repent over what we had done at night, because he had already prayed and repented. He didn't have sex with me for fear I would become pregnant. At a certain point they started suggesting women for him to go out with and he said he was going to get married and that his problems would be over. Then he left me. Only after several years did I have the strength to tell what had happened to several girlfriends. With their help I wrote a letter to a known Rabbi who was friendly with Gafni in Israel, and I told him about all that had occurred. But this Rabbi never answered me."
THEY ARE PURSUING ME
The second incident occurred when Gafni was already a young 24 year old Rabbi and married to Doris, his first wife. In that same period he lived in New York, and ran a network of Jewish clubs within a network of public schools in the city. "We had a large house with an attic that attracted a group of young runaways who were involved with drugs and sex" Gafni recollects. "They received warmth and support, and among them arrived a young girl named Judy, who was hard and wild, but we had compassion on her and helped her in any way that we could. At a certain point she started to seduce me.
One night I arrived home alone. Judy called to me from the attic and propositioned me explicitly. Of course I refused, and contacted my wife. That same night we asked Judy to leave, and she, in return, went to everyone in her group and told them I had slept with her. I said to her, `Go to a doctor who can examine you and prove that you are lying.' Then she changed her story and said I did not sleep with her, but had harrassed her sexually.
From that point things began develop rapidly. We had with us a counselor named Suzie who believed Judy and brought her to Rabbi Yosef Blau, the spiritual advisor to Yeshiva University. I don't know him, but him and his wife are strident oponents of Bayit Chadash. Since I have made aliyah and have brought people into the community, they pursue me, oppress me, and tell to everyone that I come into contacte with the story of Judy".
Gafni turned to one of the senior advisors at Yeshiva University and requested that he investigate the matter in order to discover the truth. "I said, invite me and the women who are complaining and meet with us in the presence of police, psychologists, whoever you want, just so long as the truth come out and they will finally cease oppressing me. And indeed, the matter was investigated, and an official letter went out from the Rav who conducted the investigation, and he stated in no uncertain terms that I didn't do anything wrong to any girl or woman and that the accusations were baseless. But the stories continue to circulate, and spring up in every possible place, until they have become a legend."
"Judy was 16 when Rabbi Gafni, whose name at that time was Winiarz, sexually assualted her according to her complaint", says Vicki Polin in a telephone conversation, who is a psychotherapist who treats female victims of sexual assault in the Jewish community of Baltimore. "There was no one to help and guide her. She was afraid of this man, was charismatic and impressive but also very threatening. Only after several years had passed did she come to us and tell us what happened to her.
We wanted to go to the police, but Judy had already married and had a husband and children, and it was not in her interest to revisit these issues and deal with them all over again. Since everything had taken place 20 years ago, the statute of limitations had passed. All that was left for us to do was to publicize the story and warn the American public about this man. And then more rumors started to come in, and more girls and women complained, when the matter became known publicly, Mordechai changed his name from Winiard to Gafni, left the US and moved to Israel. In Israel he transformed into a new person, and once again became involved in the Rabbinate and founded his community. And this bothers us. We think it is wrong for a man like this to be involved in counseling and to come into contact with the girls of his community, because he is dangerous and libel to hurt more women."
Gafni replies: "Vicki is outright lying. I did not move to Israel because these things were becoming known about me in the US. Nothing was becoming known about me. We came to a decision based on Zionism alone to make aliyah to Eretz Yisrael, and like most people who move to Israel we Hebraicized our name and changed it to Gafni."
"As part of my duties as spritual advisor to Yeshiva University I am involved in supporting families where there is a suspicion that someone of them may have been sexually assaulted" says Rabbi Yosef Blau in a telephone interview with him from New York. "I didn't know Gafni until his story with Judy the young little girl. We all tried to help. It was impossible to prove anything, since Gafni denied everything and claimed it was said maliciously.
"Later we received more stories about this man. When he understood that the local community already did not trust him, he changed his name, left New York and moved to Florida. From there he made Aliyah to Israel. What he does in Israel, from a Torah standpoint, is not my business, but I've already heard reports that Gafni is harrassing women also in Israel. Therefore I am issuing a warning. I am not making a practice to contact every institution that Gafni is working with, but if they ask me, I tell them about Gafni's background. I think this is my obligation".
Gafni: "Blau and his friends heard that my congregation intends to have me in politics. It was already difficult for the Rabbinate, and the idea that I would advance politically destroyed them completely. That is when they brought out the slanders against me. In the beginning I said to myself, don't react, don't raise up a storm any greater than what is already happening, let things calm down, it's not likely people will pursue incidents from the past, they'll just distort them and they could destroy me with their baseless words. But at a certain point it became clear to me that it was impossible to stop the snow ball."
HALACHAH TO THE TUNES OF LED ZEPPELIN
If the Orthodox community indeed were to take a large step backward, for Rabbi Gafni there would be much to lose. In the last few years hundreds of secular and religious Jews have taken up his spritual practices, who see him as heralding the new post modern religious movement. He is 43 years old, born in Fistville, Massachusetts. From a young age he knew he would be a rabbi, "...because I loved Torah books and philosophical texts, the psychological and the theological". At the age of 25 he was appointed Rabbi of a congregation in the area of South Palm Beach. The he was still a staunch Orthodox and a proponent of the religious establishment. The turning point was when he read a letter of Rabbi Sharira Gaon, "...and in his letter he claimed that everything that happens in the world is for the sake of Torah and Judaism and the Land of Israel", he remembers. "I was young and impudent in those days, and I asked the Rabbi who was teaching us, if a couple in China, on a moonlit night, feel a physical attraction to each other and make love, is this also for the sake of Torah and Judaism and the Land of Israel? The rav answered yes. Then I understood that there was something distorted in the traditional Orthodox approach. Because it can't be that everything in the world is necesarily enslaved. The world is rich and varied and changing".
He made aliyah to Israel in '92 and served as the rav of the settlement Tzufim in the Shomron. In that same time period he began to participate in an international discussion group on the internet , "World Sages", and through it was able to have discussions on theological, Torah, and philosophical topics. He also met with the Dalai Lama, and had discussions with him on the connection between religion and society. Slowly he gathered strength among the newly Orthodox public, and also among the secular community, which was thirsting for spiritual meaning. Gafni wrote and disseminated books of Torah thought, including "Lilith" (together with Ohed Ezrahi, published by Modan) "About the immodest, provacative, sexual and sensual apperance of Lilith according to Torah and kabalah".
Very quickly Gafni came to the small screen. For three years he had a personal program on Channel 2, "Under his Vine (Tachat Gafno)", that dealt with the connections between faith, society and halachah. Last year he presented a broad look at the weekly Torah portion with with Gil Koftesh in the cultural program "The Seventh Morning" on Channel 2. In November Channel 10 will debut a program hosted by him.
In recent years Gafni has based his postition as Rav of congregation Bayit Chadash that he set up in Yafo, on a study center and a rabinnical ordination and on studies in kabalah. He marries and divorces the members of his congregation, organizes communal Shabatot, teaches and guides, and primarily advances by means of his books and lectures his halachik vision and its suitability for new times. Through the force of his charisma and his sweeping ideas he is guiding a new spiritual religious movement, sensitive and symphonic, user friendly, pluralistic and egalitarian, that sanctifies the honor of the woman and the man.
The rabinnical establishment despises him. "The image of a Rabbi in the haredi and religious world is too perfect", he complains. "He never makes mistakes and his customs must be followed as law and all his instructions must be obeyed. I say to my congregation, `If someone wants a Rabbi like that, he shouldn't come to me'. I have made a lot of mistakes in life, and in spite of that I am a Rabbi. Because a Rav has to be first of all a lover of people and a lover of Torah, and after that someone who can admit to a mistake. Therefore in Bayit Chadash the Rabbi is not the center, the Rabbi is the congregation".
And therefore, even Gafni's outward appearance does not jive with the commonly accepted appearance of a Rabbi. His hair is long, his beard is short and his clothes are nice and stylish. With his velvet jacket and his understated glasses he looks more like a movie actor that came around to academia, than a modest and diffident Rabbi leading his community of followers.
Quietly and persistently Gafni works among the members of his congregation most of whom are not religious. He also invites non Jews to his communal Shabatot, marries same sex couples, and fights for halachic feminism. Due to the fervent adoration he gets from his believers, Gafni has withdrawn somewhat from his lifes work, so in order to spread his ideas to others, he has certified 17 women and men to the rabbinate and to communal leadership. The members of the congregation do not pay dues, and Gafni lives off of a small salary that comes from contributions.
Conversation with him is exciting, and his ideas are quick, confusing almost. Gafni throws out Torah proofs, philosophical arguments and logic from the Zohar and the Kabalah into a strange mix, yet one which stimulates thinking. At night he dances a dance of closeness in the study hall after he finishes studying, sometimes to Beethoven and sometimes to the music of Led Zeppelin. And when Chaya, his third wife is in Israel, sometimes she dances with him.
"Chaya lives in San Francisco, studies psychology and writes poetry" says Gafni sadly. "I don't want to leave Israel, and therefore we are only together three months out of the year. We have a trans Atlantic marriage, primarily by means of telephone. We are a post modern couple and we love each other from afar. My friends say, `How can you leave such a beautiful wife by herself outside of Israel?' , and I say to them, `How can I force Chaya to come to me if it is hard for her to live here?'. I can only hope that it is at least as hard for her to live without me as it is for me to live without her.
"I am very feminist in everything connected to marriage. We were taught that if we are not married plus three kids with a house and a garden and parents that come for Passover seder, we are somehow damaged goods. Nowadays we know that the family covers up many crimes and exploitation and cruelty, with the main thing being that the neighbors don't know and everything looks ok from the outside. Therefore I believe that the correct model for our time is marriage to more than one spouse. I think it is good to marry and divorce a few times, and not to strive at any price for a marriage that will last 70 years or more. We now need the attitude that it is possible to marry and divorce several times and this is the correct model. Rabbi Nahman of Breslov says that there is a spouse for an hour. A nice concept. His meaning was that if they are married 5-6 years, and afterwards it ends, then it was wonderful to marry and even more wonderful to divorce". "Divorce is not a failure but a great happiness", says Ziv Rabinowitz, a member of Bayit Chadash. "Rabbi Gafni explained to us that it doesn't make sense that at a wedding we make a big meal and we have a photographer and flowers, whereas with a divorce we are sinking into some hole and we feel sad in a short and painful ceremony. We in this congregation believe that marriage should end with a big party, just like a wedding. Therefore we created a special divorce ceremony, that during it they prepare a meal and separate in happiness, and each one gives a dollar to the other in order to discharge karmic debts (nullification of negative energy) , and they understand that just like they entered into the framework of marriage in holiness, so too they need to leave it in holiness.
Gafni's ability to dig paths to the hearts of his people brings to him primarily the young, whose intention is to run him for a coveted Knesset seat. Gafni doesn't deny the timing of the revelations of sexual harrassment to time when the students came out with an announcement of their political intentions. Either way, the resolve of the sheep of his flock always holds firm, even if the heart of he who stands at their head is somewhat weakened from shame.
In the first years of operation of congregation Bayit Chadash in Israel the incidents of the past were forgotten. Rabbi Blau and Vicki Polin tried to inform institutions that were in touch with the Rabbi and with some of the members of his congregation, but people refused to believe or cooperate, and dismissed the allegations as a personal vendetta.
Except that also in Israel the name of Gafni continued to be connected to incidents of a sexual nature. Perhaps not crimes by law, but certainly acts unfitting for a married Orthodox rabbi. In the beginning of '94 as the rav of the settlement Tzufim, and as a visiting rabbi in the religious council of Kfar Saba. "We heard good things about him, and we requested that he meet with our daughter and convince her to stop seeing a boy that we thought was unsuitable", explains the mother of a young girl from Kfar Saba. Gafni met with our daughter, who was then 23, pure and delicate and very religious, and simply fell in love with her. He was at the time married and came to us in a Torah capacity. Our daughter was drawn in by this story, Gafni promised to marry her, and the sky fell in on us.
"It was a long time before we realized how dangerous this man was and we started to fight for the life of our daughter. We recorded him saying to my daughter: `I love you very much, and I dream of the day when we will be together. You are the light of my life. I know I have a lot of problems, but I will go to therapy, the main thing is for you to be mine.' We heard this and we were shocked. We tried talking to everyone possible. We tried to contact his wife but she was not in the area. Then we took off the gloves. We definitely weren't acting like Britons. In order to save our daughter we felt that anything was permitted.
"When the story became known, Gafni left Kfar Saba, but not with our daughter. In the end we were able to save her. She left Gafni and got married to a wonderful boy, and today she is happy and has three children. After all this was over, Gafni stood to accept work with a group of girls in the high school. We disagreed. We said this is like sending a cat to guard the cream. Its crazy."
"I can say in full fairness that there was no sexual harrassment on the part of Rabbi Gafni against me.", says the daughter. "We were two souls that came together. I am a musician and I sang to him, and he was incredibly charismatic. He enchanted me. There was nothing forced or cult like between us. He simply wanted to marry me. We didn't kiss and he didn't make any sexual propositions. Just hugs."
Did you know he was a married Rabbi?
"He said that his marriage was not stable, and that I was the catalyst for its termination. The religious council did not know about our romantic relationship. He always said he had a great love for me, a once in a lifetime love. I was a religious girl, innocent, and to hear words like this from such an impressive man like Gafni...today I feel like I was very lucky. Both because I heard that I was not the only one, and also because I knew Rabbi Gafni had problems. He always needed affection."
Gafni replies: "I have a letter from the girl saying I did nothing bad. I met a wonderful girl and we fell in love. This was at a time that Lisa and I had decided to divorce. I never met her in a framework of rabbinical counseling. This is a lie and a falsehood. I knew her from giving her rides each morning to the university. We decided it would be impossible to go out until after the divorcel, out of respect for Lisa. But the parents were angry and influenced the girl to leave me, and that is what happened. I loved her greatly and wanted to marry her. But six weeks after we separated she got engaged to another."
In January of '97 Meir Polovsky, head of a private investigators office, was asked to prepare a comprehensive report on Rabbi Gafni by a certain customer there. Polovsky prepared an investigation on Gafni in Israel and outside of Israel. "I can't relate the findings in detail", he says today. "I can just say that during the course of time, many suspicions were brought regarding Gafni, but he was never investigated by any body, he wasn't judged and wasn't convicted. The suspicions were primarily in connection with young girls, which like I said before were never substantiated. I can't go into details, I can only point out that the results of the investigation in any case aren't very complimentary to the man".
LOVE IS MY MIDDLE NAME
Last September the Jewish Week in New York published a profile of Mordechai Gafni. There also suspicions were brought up against the head of congregation Bayit Chadash, and the stories of sexual harrasment became widely known. Kerry Rosenblatt, the papers editor, started the aritcle on a personal note. "Rabbi Gafni is a successful personality in Israel", he wrote about him. "He is the leader of a large and flourishing congregation, appears on radio and television and writes articles for newspapers. His popularity is rising and so publicity is following him. Therefore it is apropos to mention these stories, which accuse him of sexual harassment. There are times when it is possible to determine for sure whether someone being examined is guilty or innocent beyond doubt. In Gafni's case it is impossible to judge one way or the other. But it is important that the public know these things, because the man stirs strong feelings wherever he goes and leaves behind either points of light or points of darkness, depending on how the impression of his soul is received".
Gafni: "I didn't know where to bury myself. Sexual exploitation is a horrible thing. For 2000 years women have been exploited in every way and have not had a voice. And today, when the shechinah is demanding honor, they put me into this basket? This is absurd. Anyone who knows me would never believe this."
If this is all lies and falsehood, how come it is connected specifically to you?
"My energy is threatening. It is no secret that they are talking to me about politics, and my congregation is gathering strength and acceleration. People are jealous. Jealous and afraid. Therefore they oppress. Blau is contacting every place I am in contact with and sends emails against me and copies of writings. He is simply obsessed. Vicki Polin set up an internet site whose sole purpose is to spread rumors about me and to write theoretical accusatory articles against me. These two and their friends came to the Steven Wise synagogue in Los Angelos, where I teach, for the Jewish renewal movement, to order the management of Bayit Chadash, to obtain television programs. Until they destroy me they won't have any rest."
"When we started to produce `Under His Vine' , people came to me and told me that Gafni had sexually harassed women and young girls", tells Zivit Davidowitz, executive producer at Channel 10. "They sent me email and harassed me by telephone. It seemed like we were talking about a group of obsessives. After every program they would call and say, `See how Gafni touches women during the program, shakes their hand and hugs them'. They demanded that I fire him. But to me this didn't seem reasonable. I knew the man, I saw how he worked with the women in the crew, how he loved them and honored them. When I told this to Gafni he was depressed and embarassed. He obviously denied everything, and that was the end of it."
"Many times I thought of suing these people", raged Gafni. "But my lawyers told me that if I do that perhaps I could win in court but I would lose in communication. A headline that says: Rabbi sues girl over false accusation of rape sounds much worse than a woman who tries to impugn these terrible acts to a rabbi and he hears his accusation but doesn't respond."
Have you tried to talk to Judy or with the other girls?
"Today Judy is a plaything in Rabbi Blau's hands. Thats like asking Bill Clinton to get in touch with Monica Lewinsky. I have nothing to say to her. She crossed all reasonable lines. My first girlfriend, who was then 14, I would love to meet with. A few years ago I tried to turn to her in a friendly way and offered to meet with a rav or psychologist and to settle things once and for all. I also tried to contact her family, but they absolutely refused".
So why don't you lower your profile, and at least stay away from the hugs and talk of love? Maybe they do come, in your words, from a pure place, but they don't add to the good name of an Orthodox G-d fearing rabbi.
"Love is my middle name. I cannot live in a world where there is no open affection and love. From the great struggle against sexual harassment, which is incredibly important, there is also room for an awareness in the opposite direction, that because of it I am forbidden today to hug too much, and teachers in school cannot caress a student. This is horrible. We have created a sterile world where people cannot touch because they are afraid of being sued. I am not prepared to give in to this fear. This is completely against my faith. On the other hand, I have made a few changes in my management style. I don't see women for extended periods of counseling, since this leaves me open to suspicion. I also don't meet women alone, but only with at least one other person present. This is how I protect myself. I also don't teach youth. I prefer to work with adults who are responsible, not with children".
What does you wife say about this story?
"She is more agressive than me. She knows me well enough to understand that they are comitting character assasination against me when I haven't done anything wrong".
And indeed, in a telephone conversation with the third Mrs. Gafni, it seems she is even more angry than her husband. "I lived with Mordechai for six years, and I know him through and through", she says. "The rumors about him are simply disgusting and dirty. There is no chance that my husband would hurt or exploit someone. Since he is loving and open and ready to help and to listen, it is easy for someone who is not pure to misunderstand his pure love"
Is it possible that the fact that you don't live together most months of the year influences your judgement?
"The distance is hard on me, and this won't continue forever.One of these days we will decide how to resolve this issue. I want Mordechai to set up a rabbinical school in San Francisco, and Mordechai wants me to come to Israel to help him with congregation Bayit Chadash. We'll see what happens. Either he'll break, or I will".
Gafni listens to his wifes words and laughs bitterly. "If the attacks against me continue, perhaps I won't be able to teach any more, not in San Francisco and not in Israel', he says and a thread of hopelessness colors his voice. "And I love to teach. I love the G-dly spark in all my students. I am their teacher, friend, and student. And I intend to fight for my right to teach until the day I die. I am not some perfect rebbe and I am not a perfect teacher. When I started `Under His Vine' my promo was that whoever is looking for a perfect rabbi should tune to a different channel.
"I have made mistakes in my life, and I have had connections that in the course of time I am not happy about, but never have my mistakes had any connection to sexual exploitation. So I try to hide from the rumors.
"It comforts me that someone who supports us so much is sorry over my insult, and contributes a double what he usually does. But lately new students come to my lectures and are caught up in deeply spiritual words. They come home and ask themselves, who is this Gafni, whose words are sweeter than honey and who loves G-d and man? Then they open the internet, and they look for my name with a search engine, and read all sorts of ugly things about me. And oops, they stop coming. Thats why I have chosen to speak".
Rabbis, Cantors and Other Trusted Officials
Background Information and The History of Rabbinical Ordinations
Offenders: Problems Our Parents Wouldn't Speak Of
Policies Addressing Victimization and Offenders
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Last Updated: 12/01/2004
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