Jewfem Blog

On Marc Gafni, the New York Times, and how sexual-predator rabbis get communal support

I had a rather surreal experience last week, the kind where you wonder if the universe is playing with you or just using you as a toy in some bigger agenda that you’re only vaguely in the loop about. The New York Times ran a profile, almost a tribute, to serial sexual abuser Marc Gafni a day before I gave a talk at Limmud UK titled “Rabbis who abuse”. Gafni, formerly Mordechai Winiarz, who was described by the shameless writer as having gained “stature” despite a “troubled past” and having “sexual encounters” with a 13-year-old (No, Mr. Oppenheimer, there is no such thing as a “sexual encounter” between an adult and a 13-year-old; there is only rape), has never been tried or jailed despite four decades of accusations of sexual abuse. And as we know, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Thanks to The Times, the world now knows that Gafni is having a phenomenal rebirth, again, as some kind of scholar somewhere, supported by powerful business and New Age leaders around the world. Like so many other abusive rabbis, he has managed to shake it all off and pretend that sexual abuse is just some dust on his elegant jacket, to be flicked off with a charming nod and a wink to his friends, while he finds a new adoring audience to maintain his self-established pedestal. I have been researching this phenomenon of abusive leaders for some time. I had prepared my Limmud talk way before the Gafni story emerged (again), and planned just a passing mention of his story, among the dozen or so other anecdotes that I referred to in order to illustrate how rabbis get away with so much abuse. But Gafni’s reemergence in the Times as a man of “stature” colored my entire talk, and was a source of buzz during the whole week of Limmud. One could argue that Oppenheimer’s articles have had some positive effects of prompting some former Gafni supporters to publicly distance themselves from him (apparently 25 New Age leaders like Deepak Choprahave publicly distanced themselves from Gafni ). Still, one has to wonder why so many “leaders” have been pow-wowing with Gafni despite all the evidence that he is a sexual predator. Meanwhile, all the smiling Gafni headshots and Oppenheimer’s insistence on giving Gafni supporters many inches of column space have been more illustrative of how abusers gain influence rather than how abusers get prosecuted. This issue, of how and why high-profile leaders support high-profile abusers, is not really understood in the Jewish community, or arguably in the wider world. (How many women had to come forward before anyone took testimony against Bill Cosby seriously?) This dynamic is clearly not understood by many journalists, some of whom are so eager for a NYT byline that they are willing to throw victims of child sexual abuse under the bus by referring to rape as “sexual encounters”. But Oppenheimer is not alone in offering precious column space to the veneration of abusive leaders while giving half-hearted mention to...

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Limmud UK Recap


What an amazing week I had at Limmud UK last week. I was privileged to be there as part of the UJIA Israel delegation, courtesy of Dr Helena Miller, Director of Research & Evaluation at UJIA and Dr Michael Wegier UJIA Executive Director.  It was an exceptional privilege to be a presenter at Limmud, where I delivered five talks, facilitated two panels, including a film, met dozens of phenomenal people from around the world -- some of whom I knew only from Facebook! -- participated in several really interesting informal discussions in the bar and over meals, including a "dine and discuss" group over dinner facilitated by Dr. Miller, and overall felt really lucky to be in the company of so many amazing Jewish educators, activists, thinkers, and community members. I was live-FB-ing the conference (as you might have noticed, I don't really do much tweeint; FB is really where to find me). Below are some of my recaps from the four day event:  DAY #1of Limmud: Saw some people, briefly IRL like Sara Averick Eve Sacks Keith Kahn-Harris Devora Steinmetz, Bevery Gribetz, Allison Kaplan Sommer, Manny Waks Alan Meerkin Helena Miller (and others i'm surely forgetting)...... Gave two sessions -- the first on "Rabbis who abuse", teasing out the ways in which Jewish communal life enables abusers and disables victims, and why high profile abusers often receive high profile support.  (sad that this session coincided with Dan Brown's session on Jewish philanthropy that i wanted to go to.) The second session on religion and state in Israel, on issues like marriage, divorce, conversion, mikveh, and control of public spaces reflect a growing religious radicalism in israel backed by law.... Neither of these for the faint of heart....Tomorrow's session, "A revolution of dolphins", about Orthodox feminism, will be much more uplifting, hopefully.. Anyway, I had some really great exchanges and discussions over dinner and in the bar-lounge and in corridors, and I'm looking forward to more tomorrow. Part of me wants to stay up and do fun late-night things. But after so much traveling following by intense teaching, my eyelids and my muscles rebel. More tomorrow..... Still looking for some people: Amanda Borschel-Dan where are you? Gabrielle Birkner looking for you too....... LIMMUD DAY #2: Loved meeting people IRL, some of whom I had only met on Facebook (!), like a lovely breakfast with Danya Ruttenberg and Robyn Tessler Shames discussing feminism, creative processes and parenting.... meeting Nadia Jacobson Eve Sacks Manny Waks Dyonna Ginsburg..... Also enjoyed seeing (briefly) Levi Lauer Sally Berkovic and Jacqueline Nicholls. Went to some great sessions: watched Manny Waks' really intense film "Code of Silence" about what he and his family went through because of his experience of sexual abuse in Yeshiva College...... Levi Lauer on the really difficult and heart-wrenching topic of prostitution and sex trafficking. Dyonna Ginsburg on Israel's history of international development work..... AND, gave a talk called "A revolution of dolphins", about the public and private revolutions of Orthodox feminists. Despite some technical...

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