Thursday, June 01, 2006

Washington (DC) Jewish Week - Marc Gafni

Charisma's shadow Jewish Renewal community grapples with ethics in wake of Gafni affair
by Paula Amann
News Editor
Washington Jewish Week
June 1, 2006

In early April, Rabbi Mordechai Gafni brought his supercharged teaching style to a weekend retreat at the District's Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.

Two weeks ago, the Shabbaton's featured speaker resigned from Bayit Chadash, the spirituality center he founded and led in Jaffa, Israel, amid allegations of sexual misconduct by five women students and staffers there.

Three young women in their 20s filed a complaint in early May with Haifa police against Gafni, claiming he sexually harassed them during Torah lessons conducted at his center, reported YNet, a Web site for which Gafni had written a weekly column. The thrice-married rabbi, who is in his mid-40s, allegedly pledged each of the trio that he would marry her if she had sex with him.

After fleeing Israel for the United States, the Orthodox-educated Gafni confessed his guilt and apologized in a public letter to his followers, saying he would seek treatment for his "sickness." The U.S.-born Gafni, who hosted a TV show in Israel and had appeared in a special on PBS, had been dogged by sexual abuse allegations throughout his career.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat, had ordained Gafni, but revoked that ordination in 1994, according to The Jewish Week in New York. That took place, the paper reported, after Gafni had been quoted in Ha'aretz as calling for restoring balance between the erotic and the spiritual.

The author of Soul Prints: Your Path to Fulfillment and The Mystery of Love, Gafni had appeared in D.C. April 9 under the auspices of the Am Kolel Sanctuary and Renewal Center and the Bethesda Jewish Congregation.

Rabbi David Shneyer, who directs Am Kolel, reacted to Gafni's forced departure from Bayit Chadash via voice mail.

"It's really sad," Shneyer said. "I just wish healing for everyone involved."

The current president of Ohalah, the Jewish Renewal rabbinic association, Shneyer notes that the group was already readying ethics training for its conference next January when the news surfaced about Gafni, who does not belong to Ohalah or to Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the corresponding lay organization.

"Before this all broke, we had planned a track on ethics and relationships and boundaries in our community," Shneyer said in a later interview.

BJC's spiritual leader Hazzan Sunny Schnitzer said he had been aware of 25-year-old charges of sexual impropriety with teenage girls.

"He had personally refuted all the allegations," Shnitzer said of longtime rumors of such misconduct that swirled about Gafni.

The situation, he added, spotlights the tension between twin Jewish injunctions in Leviticus 19:16 to avoid lashon hara, or gossip, and yet not stand idly by when people are being hurt.
"You shall not go about slandering your kin," reads the verse, which goes on, "You shall not stand over the blood of your fellow man." (Translation from Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses)

The silence around Gafni's alleged misdeeds, said Schnitzer, represents "the downside of the Jewish rules of lashon hara because on the one hand, we refrain from anything that is rumor or hearsay, but on the other, there is an obligation to protect the community."

An Aleph spokesperson, Rabbi Daniel Siegel, stressed that his organization had long maintained both ethical guidelines and trainings for all teachers at its biennial Kallah, or retreat week.

"No romantic liaison can be undertaken under circumstances between a teacher and a student," Siegel said.

Aleph's director of spiritual resources and the group's former executive director, Siegel also noted that no complaints of sexual misconduct about Gafni had emerged when he taught at the Kallah.

"Mordechai's relationship to us was as a popular teacher," Siegel explained, noting that the Israeli rabbi did not ever join Aleph. "There has always been a certain caution around him. When he has in the past stepped over lines set by mutual agreement, we have called him on it."

Gafni also co-led a two-week session, "The Maggidic Journey: Developing Jewish Spiritual Literacy," last August and previous summers at Elat Chayyim: The Jewish Retreat Center in Accord, N.Y.

Bennett Nieman, the center's executive director, said his group had checked on 25-year-old rumors of sexual impropriety and could not substantiate them.

"There were some complaints that he was like a televangelist," said Nieman, but no complaints of sexual abuse by Gafni were leveled by Elat Chayyim participants, he said.

Both Aleph and Elat Chayyim have nearly identical guidelines that mandate "refraining from beginning a sexual relationship with any participant in our class, group, workshop, prayer group or healing session" at any of the events the groups sponsor.

Roni Posner, a District resident and board member of Elat Chayyim, which moves to Connecticut in September, said retreat center leaders were working to strengthen existing ethics guidelines, in light of the Gafni scandal.

"The ethical issue at the heart of this is ... the issue of the abuse of power that can happen in any teaching environment, whether in a formal school setting or retreat setting," Posner said. "Especially now, as we look at whole new era for Elat Chayyim, as we look at a move, we're reviewing all our policies, including our code of ethics."

Bethesda's Judith Dack, a summer staff member at Elat Chayyim, saw Gafni evoke strong, contrasting emotions from Renewal leaders and students there.

For some participants, Gafni ‹ born Marc Winiarz ‹ seemed "deeply inspired" and "brought people back to Judaism," recalled Dack.

Other observers, she noted, were "seriously concerned and frightened by this energy he was churning up."

At Aleph, Siegel said he would be preparing a document in the coming month on the difference between "true channeling" of the divine by spiritual leaders and the "shadow side" of religious charisma.

"We want to raise this issue into a public discussion because it's clear there's a need," Siegel said.

Schnitzer, meanwhile, flagged the pitfall of elevating a spiritual leader above his or her message.

"Guruhood is a really toxic place when it's all about the teacher and not the teaching," Schnitzer said. "We need to keep our eyes wide open and when the inconsistencies show up, we need to be aware enough to step back."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

For g-d's sake take these animals down!

"Gerer Mesivta closes down its dormitory"

"Due to 'certain' problems with its Bocherim, the Gerer Mesivta in Boro-Park has closed down its dormitory. The Yeshivah Bocherim now have to find a place to sleep on their own every night. The closing of the dorm comes after allegations were made of hanky panky going on between Bocherim of the Yeshivah and only a little while after the Rosh Yeshivah, HaRav Leizerowitz, was sent away from the Yeshivah and was forced to go to Israel for allegedly molesting many Bocherim."

June 04, 2006 10:14 AM  

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