People who have met Marc Gafni describe him as magnetic, the kind of person who draws you in. The part-time Pacific Grove resident has built a successful career as a spiritual leader, author and speaker. He’s a founder of the Center for Integral Wisdom, an “activist think tank” based on promoting a philosophy of personal and cultural transformation.
Gafni, 55, himself has gone through transformations in his career, working under different names in different countries, in the religious and secular realms.
Judy Mitzner knew Gafni in 1986, when he was Mordechai Winiarz, a 24-year-old orthodox Jewish rabbi, and she was an observant 16-year-old. She was staying with him and his wife, and says he approached her basement bedroom, said “You know what you want,” and climbed into bed naked with her.
“At the time, the rabbinate said, ‘We’re sorry to hear that, but we’re going to deal with it internally,’” Mitzner recalls.
A 2004 story in The Jewish Week exposed allegations of sexual abuse against him by Mitzner and one other minor. That story included his recollection of when he was 19 or 20, and quoted him as saying, “I was a stupid kid and we were in love. She was 14 going on 35, and I never forced her.”
Gafni says that quote was taken out of context, and physical contact was strictly above the waist; he offered to share polygraph test results with the Weekly to prove it.
Gafni later taught in Israel, where he was dogged by allegations of sexual harassment. His ordination was eventually revoked, as was a subsequent ordination in the Jewish Renewal movement, a more liberal branch of Judaism. He went on to operate as a strictly secular leader in the years since.
The stories of abuse from Gafni’s past have resurfaced again, this time in the New York Times on Christmas Day. Since then, rabbis across denominations have denounced Gafni, and signed a change.org petition that counted 2,702 signatures as of press time, calling on several organizations to sever ties with Gafni.
Those organizations include Whole Foods, because CEO John Mackey serves as co-chair of the Center for Integral Wisdom, and the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, where Gafni has co-led about a half-dozen workshops over the past five years.
He’s next scheduled to teach there Feb. 5-7, co-leading a workshop called “Evolutionary Relationships: Opening Into the Great Heart.”
Esalen Institute President Gordon Wheeler says he’s aware of the petition and has spoken with critics calling on Esalen to cancel the workshop, but current plans are to keep it on the schedule.
“We take any kind of feedback about ethics or safety very, very seriously,” Wheeler says. “We also take our contracts with every teacher very seriously.”
For Marin County resident Nancy Levine, a repeat Esalen participant since 1993, allowing Gafni to stay on means ending her connection to what she’s found to be a transformative place. “If he is allowed to teach there, I’m never going to go back,” she says.
Rabbi Jill Zimmerman, who signed the petition, says even though Gafni is no longer a rabbi, there is still a need to speak up: “Just because he is outside the realm of Jewish leadership, it doesn’t remove our responsibility to stop him from abusing other women.”