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Charismatic Rabbi Fired for His Sexual Predations

After accusations of sexual misconduct with young female students and other women for more than 25 years, Mordechai Gafni, 46, a charismatic rabbi and teacher associated with the Jewish Renewal movement, has been fired from his leadership role on the faculty of Bayit Chadash, a study center he cofounded in Tel Aviv. Gafni, an American, moved to Israel about 15 years ago and changed his name from Winiarz to divert attention away from earlier allegations, according to news reports. In emails sent by the board of the study center, Lilith was told that Gafni was dismissed after four women— students and employees—came forward and gave sworn testimony before an Israeli lawyer, recounting Gafni’s exploitation of the relationship between a spiritual leader and his congregants or students. Israeli police have not yet taken action against Gafni, who has left Israel for the United States in the wake of his dismissal. “I am sick,” he says.

Gafni, married and divorced three times, is reported to have had a years-long pattern of promising women he counseled that he would marry them if they had sex with him, swearing each woman to “eternal and absolute silence.” Earlier allegations included that as a 19-year-old youth leader he had had a sexual relationship with at least one 13-year-old girl, saying later that she was “13, going on 35.”

When Gary Rosenblatt reported in 2004, in New York’s Jewish Week newspaper, that Gafni had a long history of sexual misconduct, then being reported in the Israeli press as well, rabbis male and female, traditional and otherwise, came passionately to Gafni’s defense. Rabbi Saul Berman, respected Modern Orthodox leader, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone of the Jewish Renewal movement and ethicist and author Joseph Telushkin were among those who wrote the Jewish Week that they had investigated and found the past allegations “totally unconvincing.” Those defenders and others have, since the firing in May, sprung up to announce that they were wrong—that they, too, had been manipulated by Gafni. Several have said how difficult it is to strike a balance between avoiding lashon hara— speaking ill of someone—and the need to protect a community from predators.

Meanwhile, from substantiated accounts of sexual exploitation by other charismatic rabbis (Shiomo Carlebach among them, as reported in “The Paradoxical Legacy” by Sarah Blustain in Lilith, Spring 1998), we know that wounds from the betrayal by a spiritual leader remain with the victims for years. But unlike Lilith’s coverage of the Carlebach misconduct, where the victims spoke in their own words, much of the focus of current reporting has been on the defenders, the retractors and the accused himself.