Marc Gafni, a spiritual teacher who's come under fire in recent weeks after a New York Times profile revealed a history of sex abuse and harassment allegations against him, has canceled a workshop he was scheduled to co-lead at the Esalen Institute in February.
Right after the Times story ran on Christmas, a prominent New York rabbi launched a change.org petition calling on several affiliated businesses and institutions—including Esalen—to sever their ties with Gafni.
That petition today counts 3,275 signatures, and includes several prominent rabbis from across Jewish denominations, including the two (orthodox and Jewish Renewal) that Gafni was formerly affiliated with as a rabbi.
"The teachers have voluntarily withdrawn," Esalen Institute President Gordon Wheeler writes by email. The workshop was scheduled for Feb. 5-7.
The workshop, which was to be co-led by Sally Kempton, was called “Evolutionary Relationships: Opening Into the Great Heart.”
"Anyone who had signed up for the workshop has been contacted, and in accordance with our policy when teachers cancel, those people are eligible to simply switch to another workshop at the same time if desired, or to received a credit or refund," Wheeler adds.
Gafni did not respond to a request for comment on his decision to drop the workshop.
In recent weeks, Wheeler was fielding phone calls and emails from Esalen participants urging Esalen to cut ties with Gafni, but as Wheeler told the Weekly, “We take any kind of feedback about ethics or safety very, very seriously. We also take our contracts with every teacher very seriously.”
Wheeler also notes that in context, the controversy surrounding one instructor is relatively small; Esalen offers some 600 workshops a year, and about 20,000 participants attend.
Gafni has co-led about a half-dozen workshops at Esalen for the past five years.
Before emerging as a spiritual leader in integral thought, Gafni, now 55, was a Jewish teacher and rabbi.
He has worked in different countries under different names throughout his career. He started out as a young Orthodox Jewish rabbi named Mordechai Winiarz in New York, then shifted gears and became a rabbi in the more liberal Jewish Renewal movement in Israel, using an Israeli version of his name, Marc Gafni.
Allegations of sexual misconduct dogged him in both countries; adult women in Israel said he had harassed them, and two young women from New York said he had sexually abused them.
One is Sara Kabakov, who for the first time made her identity public on Jan. 12 by telling her story in Forward, a Jewish newspaper based in New York.
In 1980, she was 13 when 19- or 20-year-old Winiarz, then a rabbinical student, would habitually join her family for Shabbat dinner and spend the night in her brothers' room.
Her story is one that's become all too familiar, of a respected adult grooming a minor and coaching them into silence, well before any physical contact begins.
In an interview, Gafni maintained the two were "deeply in love," and says the only physical contact they had was strictly above the waist.
Kabakov writes that she tried to tell adults—a counselor, a teacher—but no one seemed to hear her, or if they did, know how to respond.
In the case of Judy Mitzner, who went public right after Gafni allegedly abused her in 1986 when she was 16, no one listened, or if they did, they didn't respond.
"We met with three rabbis at Yeshiva," Mitzner recalls. "They heard my story and audio-taped it, and then they told us they would handle it internally. They basically told us not to go to the police."
"The only difference now is, the victims have piled up over 30 years so it’s harder to deny it," she says. "It was easy back then; they could brush it under the rug and move him along to the next location."
After both of Gafni's rabbinical ordinations were revoked, he became a successful secular teacher and author.
He's now a part-time Pacific Grove resident, and in 2011 co-founded the Center for Integral Wisdom, an “activist think tank” based on promoting a philosophy of personal and cultural transformation.
Other institutions on the change.org petition include Whole Foods, because the CEO of the grocery chain, John Mackey, serves on the board of the Center for Integral Wisdom.
"John Mackey’s involvement with Marc Gafni and the Center for Integral Wisdom is his personal business, and does not represent an endorsement or support by Whole Foods Market for either Mr. Gafni or the Center for Integral Wisdom," Whole Foods spokesperson Beth Krauss writes by email.
Another board member is Ben Jealous, a Seaside native and former president of the NAACP from 2008-12, is also listed as a member of the board of the Center for Integral Wisdom. (Jealous did not respond to earlier requests from the Weekly for this story.)
Multiple Jewish media outlets have followed this story closely since it broke Dec. 25 in the Times.
A conversation between him, an attorney and a public relations adviser was recorded following the end of an interview with a reporter, and that recording was then shared with the Forward.
In it, Gafni proposes suing the Forward as "a test case," even before a story was published.
"The Jews are upset that the think tank is going well," Gafni said in the recorded call, as an explanation for the surging attention on him and his past.
That's consistent with what he told the Weekly in a Jan. 5 interview, when he said there was "an organized, calculated campaign" against him.
In the recorded conversation posted by the Forward, Gafni's advisers warn him that litigation can turn up some unpleasant facts from someone's history, those facts become easily searchable online, and it can become difficult to get a job.
"That's a great piece of information," Gafni replies. "Thank god I run my own think tank, because otherwise I'd never get a job."
The audio of that conversation was posted on the Forward's website; you can listen here.