Former Rabbi Accused of Improper Sexual Conduct Now Rising Star in U.S. Spiritual Movement

Marc Gafni, who has been accused over the years in the U.S. and Israel of sexual improprieties, is gaining prominence as head of the Center for Integral Wisdom.

Marc Gafni, founder of the Center for Integral Wisdom in California.
Ryan Jones / NYT

Marc Gafni, a Massachusetts-born former rabbi who has a been accused of a series of acts of sexual misconduct in the United States and Israel and who spent years living in Israel is remaking his life in California as a leader of a new American spiritual movement, the New York Times reported Sunday. But his rise to prominence is also reportedly troubling to Jewish leaders over his alleged past.

Gafni has attracted a real following, the Times noted, including, for example, the co-founder of U.S. food retailer Whole Foods, John Mackey, who called Gafni “a bold visionary.” Mackey is executive chairman of Gafni's Center for Integral Wisdom think tank and hosts board meetings at his Texas ranch. Bestselling author John Gray has asked Gafni to assist him in a sequel to his "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus." And media figure Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post spoke at an invitation-only conference organized by Gafni last year, the Times noted, although Huffington said she had only met Gafni once, having been introduced by Mackey.

Members of Gafni's think tank, the Center for Integral Wisdom, draw from the realms of medicine, yoga, meditation and "conscious capitalism," a business ethics movement whose proponents include Mackey, the Times explained. "But the growing prominence of Mr. Gafni, 55, and his think tank has alarmed many Jewish leaders who know him as a former rabbi who was accused of sexually exploiting a high school freshman and who then moved to Israel to start a mystical community, only to lose it after having affairs with multiple followers," the Times reported.

"Mr. Gafni, who talked about his past during several interviews, and his supporters say he has put all of that behind him. He said that old claims against him were all exaggerated, the result of professional resentment, and that he had been the victim of pseudo-feminist witch hunts," the Times stated.

Integral theory guru Ken Wilber, who co-founded Gafni's think tank, reportedly researched the rumors about the former rabbi before joining forces with him. "Mr. Wilber concluded that Mr. Gafni was, at worst, 'insensitive as a boyfriend,'" the Times said.

Born Mordechai Winiarz to an Orthodox family in Pittfield, Massachusetts, Gafni and his family moved to Ohio but he attended Orthodox Jewish high school in New York, the Times recounted. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, formerly of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York who has lived in Israel for many years. told the Times: “He was one of the most brilliant students I have ever taught." Riskin, who ordained Gafni, also rescinded the ordination, according to the newspaper.

In 2004, a report in a New York Jewish weekly reported on allegations that Gafni had sexually assaulted a woman over a nine-month period beginning in 1980 when she was 13, although Gafni said he never forced himself on the teen. The Times also reported that in 1986, when Gafni was working for a Jewish youth outreach program, he was accused by a 16-year-old girl, Judy Mitzner, of climbing into bed with her while she was naked, and claimed he stalked her for years following the incident. "Mr. Gafni said that it was 'a onetime event'” and that Ms. Mitzner was 'highly initiatory' and came on to him," the Times reported. Mitzner, who recently wrote about the episode, disputes Gafni's account. No charges were filed in either incident, according to the Times.

Gafni moved to Israel in 1988 and became a popular teacher. Around 2000, he started Bayit Hadash ("New Home"), which sponsored programming on mysticism and creative worship. In 2006, Haaretz reported that three female members of Bayit Hadash had filed sexual exploitation complaints against Gafni, claiming that they were manipulated and sexually exploited by him. Gafni allegedly swore them to secrecy after having sex with them, although he said he later claimed that he demanded privacy of women whom he had sex with but did not deem it a matter of secrecy. Haaretz reported that Gafni fled Israel for the United States following the filing of the complaints in 2006.

"Gafni wrote a remorseful letter to the members of the community," Haaretz reported at the time, "saying he understands he is ill and must undergo treatment. He added that he takes full responsibility for hurting the women, and regrets having done so." But more recently, according to the New York Times, Gafni said he regretted apologizing and wrote it only did so to avoid “sensationalist conflict.”

"Mr. Gafni, who has been divorced three times, said that any mistakes might have occurred because he was in denial about his polyamorous nature," the Times reported. And it quoted Gafni as saying: "I think one of the things that I’ve learned a lot about over the years is to take more and more responsibility for my impact on people.”