Ex-peers, students distancing from disgraced rabbi

The messy demise of Rabbi Mordechai Gafni’s career has sparked reverberations throughout the world of progressive Judaism, including the Bay Area — where former colleagues and students of the defrocked rabbi can only look on in anger and sorrow and wonder what, if anything, they could have done.

Gafni, 46, was fired last month from the Tel Aviv-based prayer group he co-founded and where he served as chief teacher after four women simultaneously filed charges with Israeli police accusing the rabbi of sexual misconduct.

Gafni, who wrote an open letter admitting “grave mistakes” and claiming he is “sick,” has reportedly fled from Israel, possibly for the United States. His current whereabouts are unknown at this time.

At the peak of his popularity he visited the Bay Area at least once a year.

The charges brought by Gafni’s Israeli accusers appear to be the ones that will stick in a career dotted with rumors and allegations of sexual misbehavior. Yet the advocacy of powerful, influential rabbis — Orthodox, Renewal and Reform — always kept Gafni above the fray.

“I am horrified that we in Renewal supported him and befriended him when he was hurting women in Israel,” said Rabbi Pam Frydman Baugh, the former head of Ohalah, the Renewal rabbinical association, and current department head at Brandeis Hillel Day School’s San Francisco campus.

Gafni held two ordinations, Orthodox and Renewal, both of which have since been rescinded. And though Gafni was not a member of Ohalah, in 2004 Frydman Baugh began getting calls alleging that he had a history of sexual abuse.

Frydman Baugh contacted a woman who claimed she had a sexual relationship with Gafni when she was a young teenager and he was a 19-year-old yeshiva student living in her parents’ house.

Frydman Baugh urged the woman to contact Aleph, the Renewal movement’s spiritual advisory council, on which Gafni sat for two years. She is unsure if the woman ever made that call, but not long after her conversation with Frydman Baugh, the woman’s story appeared in a New York Jewish Week article — along with other women’s testimonies.

In that article, Gafni described his accuser as “14 going on 35,” adding “I was a stupid kid and we were in love,” and claiming he never forced himself on her.

“Support for him was so strong … I found out that Rabbi [Joseph] Telushkin, [Saul] Berman, [Tirzah] Firestone and [Arthur] Green, these people were vouching for him and saying, yes, he had been involved in inappropriate sexual relations when he was young but he had been rehabilitated and he was fine,” said Frydman Baugh, noting several of the progressive rabbis who supported Gafni through the years. (A number of them have since expressed regret they did so.)

“If, at the time [Gafni] had been a member of Ohalah, I would have referred the matter to our ethics committee. In retrospect, I don’t know what I could have done. I wish we could have done something.”

Gafni, who was born Marc Winiarz, was revered by many as one of the shining stars in the world of progressive Judaism, and was a past instructor or speaker at a number of Bay Area Jewish organizations, including several Renewal synagogues.

He was a former scholar-in-residence at Los Angeles’ Reform Stephen S. Wise Temple and spoke at least twice at Tiburon’s Conservative Kol Shofar, according to Rabbi Lavey Derby, most recently in 2003, where he did not make a positive impression on Derby.

“In public appearances, Gafni was very charismatic and flirtatiously so. And he acted in public in a way that was not appropriate and was a little too flirtatious and familiar with women,” Derby said.

“One could see there was a potential for a problem. He is a brilliant guy. And his teaching is very deep and profound. But he apparently suffers from that same kind of illness that strikes a great many charismatic spiritual teachers who have difficulties around boundaries … It’s a very seductive thing to get a nice-looking male who is very spiritual and deeply in touch with spiritual language talking about love and sex and the male and female aspects of the God-head merging together in oneness.”

In fact, when one compares and contrasts the sexual behavior Gafni is accused of with his spiritual teachings, one can’t help but be almost overcome by the profound irony of it all, noted a former Easy Bay student who would speak to j. only on condition of anonymity.

He participated in the rabbi’s correspondence ordination course along with about 12 others. He believes that any association of his name with Gafni’s can now only hinder a future career as a rabbi or spiritual adviser.

In his teachings, Gafni stressed that we must learn from sexuality but apply it to “other areas of life and not derive all of our pleasure from the sexual. It’s very ironic that he taught again and again that [sex] cannot fulfill all the needs we put on it,” said the student. “When you read his teachings in light of what happened, it seems really sad. Perhaps through his teachings he was crying out for help.”

The student had heard whisperings of Gafni’s troubled past, but the rabbi assured him in several phone calls that it was all lies fueled by “people out to undermine him. People who had a problem with the Jewish Renewal movement. And other rabbis I respect backed him up … which, obviously, they’re very sorry about now.”

Continued the student, “It’s just heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking that somebody could stand for what it means to live a true and ethical life and do stuff way below the line in their real life … It’s heartbreaking to all the people who suffered — the women who came forward and those who didn’t. And it’s heartbreaking when you think about what it might mean for the Jewish Renewal movement in general.”

In hindsight, Renewal rabbis agree that the coddling of Gafni by the movement’s heavy hitters is a terrible blow. And for those who would sum up the scandal as an “only in the Renewal movement” occurrence, Rabbi David Cooper, spiritual leader of Piedmont’s Kehilla Community Synagogue, has harsh words.

“Anyone who takes advantage of this tragedy to point fingers at someone in hopes of comforting themselves that this can’t happen in their shul or in their movement does so at the peril of their constituents.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.