Social media storm circles ex-rabbi, alleged abuser Gafni

An online petition is calling on Whole Foods and the Esalen Institute in Big Sur to cut financial and institutional ties with Marc Gafni, a former rabbi and spiritual teacher now living in Northern California who is widely accused of sexual misconduct.

More than 2,700 people had signed the petition at Change.org as of midweek, including a half-dozen Bay Area rabbis and Jewish professionals listed among the lead signatories. Launched on Dec. 29, the petition urges signers to “Stop Marc Gafni from Abusing Again.”

The petition, which follows a Dec. 25 article about Gafni in the New York Times, says it aims to “prevent future harm to those who may be exposed to him, and as a protest against any individuals, organizations, or institutions that support or endorse him as a teacher or leader.”

Gafni, 55, has long been trailed by accusations of sexual impropriety, and he has acknowledged some inappropriate behavior in statements his critics call inadequate. When he was 19 or 20, Gafni reportedly had repeated sexual encounters with a 14-year-old girl; he says the encounters were consensual but she says they were not. In his mid-20s, Gafni was accused of groping a 16-year-old girl involved with his Jewish outreach program and climbing into bed with her naked while she was visiting his home. Gafni also was accused of carrying on sexual affairs with women he was working with at his Jewish organization in Jerusalem.

For a time seen as a charismatic Orthodox teacher of Torah in Jerusalem, Gafni eventually stopped identifying as Orthodox and drifted to the Renewal movement. He was ordained by its leader, Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, who rescinded the ordination and disowned Gafni in 2006 after a public airing of his sexual and ethical breaches.

In a Dec. 28 statement, the Renewal alliance Aleph said that while it believes in repentance, it finds “no credible basis” to find that Gafni has traveled that route.

Several years after leaving Israel and dropping off the Jewish map, Gafni re-emerged in Utah as a practitioner of a Kabbalah-inspired philosophy called evolutionary spirituality. More recently, Gafni, who has authored several books on spiritualism, founded the Center for Integral Wisdom in Pacific Grove, near Monterey, where the self-described “former rabbi” advocates for and practices “outrageous love.”

“What does the outrageous lover do? An outrageous lover commits outrageous acts of love,” Gafni wrote in a piece published on his website. “Our love lists are way too short. And we limit love to those few people on our romantic, sexual, love circle, or to that only person in our romantic, love, sexual circle.”

“It is as sick and dark a tale as anything,” said New York Renewal Rabbi David Ingber, who organized the online petition seeking to discredit Gafni as a teacher. “What’s really amazing is how long the story was around and Gafni kept getting people to drop it. He uses his brilliance to defend himself and to trap new victims.”

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, who chairs the executive board of Gafni’s organization, has removed videos of himself with Gafni from the company website, but as of press time, Gafni was still scheduled to co-lead a workshop at Esalen in early February. — jta & j. staff