After a firestorm of protest about spiritual teacher Marc Gafni’s upcoming workshop at Esalen, a California retreat center, Gafni and co-teacher Sally Kempton have “voluntarily” chosen to withdraw, said Esalen president Gordon Wheeler.
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The workshop was scheduled for February 5. Asked if Gafni might return someday to Esalen, Wheeler said “it’s very, very complex, so I can’t give you a categorical answer on that.”
Perhaps tellingly, Gafni’s teacher page was no longer available (it was up last month) on Esalen’s site Thursday afternoon. A click on the page leads to a “Page not found” notice.
An Esalen spokeswoman said that Gafni’s teacher page was taken down because he now has no upcoming workshops at the retreat center. Kempton’s page remains up because she has workshops scheduled.
On January 12, the Forward published an essay by a woman, Sara Kabakov, who alleged that Gafni molested her repeatedly, beginning when she was 13.
While allegations against Gafni have been the subject of multiple press reports since 2004, new attention was brought to the claims in a December New York Times column. The New York Jewish Week reported on January 5 that Esalen was considering cancelling Gafni’s February workshop.
Nancy Levine, an executive recruiter in Marin County who describes herself as a “longtime Esalen seminarian,” said in an email she was glad to learn that Gafni will not be teaching there next month. “My understanding is that statutes of limitations prevent Gafni’s prosecution under the law,” said Levine, who has been active on social media urging that Gafni not teach at Esalen.
“But after reading numerous accounts from his alleged victims, many of whom were his students, I feel strongly that he shouldn’t teach. Anywhere. Ever again. Unfortunately, there is no statute of limitations on the suffering and trauma experienced by his alleged victims. Theirs is a life sentence.” Since the allegations about Gafni, 55, resurfaced last month, a number of prominent rabbis have distanced themselves from him. An online petition circulated demanding that he halt teaching, especially at overnight workshops whose participants could be more vulnerable to a charismatic leader.
Wheeler emphasized that Esalen, located on picturesque bluffs on the Big Sur coast, is committed to the safety of its workshop participants as well as their potential for growth.
“Our concerns in regard to this workshop were whether the conditions were there for a transformational learning experience just because of the noise level,” he said. “But as it turned out the teachers voluntarily withdrew so that question is moot.”
He declined to comment on the allegations against Gafni, a former rabbi, but reiterated: “We take these kinds of issues very seriously.”
The general feeling at Esalen about Gafni is sadness, Wheeler said. “Whenever a teacher is in choppy waters, someone who at times has been a respected leader, I think that’s a very sad thing,” he said.
“The sadness is not just at Esalen – it’s gone all across the Internet and across the country, and more than one country,” he said. “All of us need to learn, all of us need to regard each other with compassion, and all of us need to hold each other and ourselves to the highest standards.”
Michael Shapiro is a reporter based near San Francisco. He writes for the Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle, among other news outlets.
Josh Nathan-Kazis contributed to this story.