On Marc Gafni, the New York Times, and how sexual-predator rabbis get communal support
I had a rather surreal experience last week, the kind where you wonder if the universe is playing with you or just using you as a toy in some bigger agenda that you’re only vaguely in the loop about.
The New York Times ran a profile, almost a tribute, to serial sexual abuser Marc Gafni a day before I gave a talk at Limmud UK titled “Rabbis who abuse”. Gafni, formerly Mordechai Winiarz, who was described by the shameless writer as having gained “stature” despite a “troubled past” and having “sexual encounters” with a 13-year-old (No, Mr. Oppenheimer, there is no such thing as a “sexual encounter” between an adult and a 13-year-old; there is only rape), has never been tried or jailed despite four decades of accusations of sexual abuse. And as we know, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Thanks to The Times, the world now knows that Gafni is having a phenomenal rebirth, again, as some kind of scholar somewhere, supported by powerful business and New Age leaders around the world. Like so many other abusive rabbis, he has managed to shake it all off and pretend that sexual abuse is just some dust on his elegant jacket, to be flicked off with a charming nod and a wink to his friends, while he finds a new adoring audience to maintain his self-established pedestal.
I have been researching this phenomenon of abusive leaders for some time. I had prepared my Limmud talk way before the Gafni story emerged (again), and planned just a passing mention of his story, among the dozen or so other anecdotes that I referred to in order to illustrate how rabbis get away with so much abuse. But Gafni’s reemergence in the Times as a man of “stature” colored my entire talk, and was a source of buzz during the whole week of Limmud. One could argue that Oppenheimer’s articles have had some positive effects of prompting some former Gafni supporters to publicly distance themselves from him (apparently 25 New Age leaders like Deepak Chopra have publicly distanced themselves from Gafni ). Still, one has to wonder why so many “leaders” have been pow-wowing with Gafni despite all the evidence that he is a sexual predator. Meanwhile, all the smiling Gafni headshots and Oppenheimer’s insistence on giving Gafni supporters many inches of column space have been more illustrative of how abusers gain influence rather than how abusers get prosecuted.
This issue, of how and why high-profile leaders support high-profile abusers, is not really understood in the Jewish community, or arguably in the wider world. (How many women had to come forward before anyone took testimony against Bill Cosby seriously?) This dynamic is clearly not understood by many journalists, some of whom are so eager for a NYT byline that they are willing to throw victims of child sexual abuse under the bus by referring to rape as “sexual encounters”. But Oppenheimer is not alone in offering precious column space to the veneration of abusive leaders while giving half-hearted mention to a “troubled past”. The dynamic is not understood by communal leaders stuck in a star-struck culture in which proximity to so-called “celebrities” — Jewish or otherwise — trumps values like compassion for victims, integrity, and commitment to justice. Even today, as some of Gafni’s supporters reflect on their dubious attitudes of support for abusers, the question of how rabbis like Gafni get to where they are — with decades of adulation and high-paying jobs rather than a ticket to a prison cell — remains glaring.
To be clear: the Jewish community faces an epidemic of sexual abuse — as UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said earlier this year. As many as 1 out of 4 girls
and 1 out of 6 boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18. The majority of minors who were sexually abused — an estimated 75% — were victimized by people they know. Over 85% of cases are not reported to local police or children rights protection groups. According to a study by Abel and Harlow, 93% of child sexual molesters define themselves as religious.Based on anecdotal evidence and unofficial collections, such as the Jewish Community Watch Wall of Shame, a disproportionate number of Jewish sexual abusers are rabbis or quasi-rabbis. And a very small proportion of abusers ever get prosecuted. Many remain in high-profile positions for years or even decades.
It is vital to understand how the Jewish community enables rabbi-abusers. Here are some of the insights that I have gleaned from years of research on sexual abuse in the Jewish community, which I shared last week at Limmud.
First of all, social hierarchies in the Jewish community favor high-profile abusers over their victims. Within hierarchies around knowledge, power, status, position, and money, rabbis enjoy many privileges. They are revered as all-knowers, possessers of people’s vulnerabilities and secrets, responsible for institutional reputations and fundraising, and considered representatives of entire communities. Rabbis are trusted and entrusted with layers of power. In the Orthodox community, this has an added gender hierarchy, in which all-powerful rabbis belong to exclusively male organizations that get to decide whether to believe the often female and powerless victims. In short, rabbis have power, prestige, and high-profile friends, as well as a lot of money riding on their reputations. Victims usually have none of that.
Abusers in power know how to use their status to lure, manipulate and silence victims. In a process known as “grooming”, the powerful abuser will make promises such as, “You’re my favorite,”, or “This is sacred time with me,” or “You’re special,” which play on the hierarchies with promises of social mobility. When Todros Grynhaus, a recently convicted UK abuser, tried to force his victim — a haredi teenage girl — into a sex act, he said “You might as well make yourself useful,” reinforcing the idea in the victim’s mind that she was a useless, powerless nobody. Emotional manipulation is the abusers’ specialty, and abusive rabbis know well how to use their power for these ends.
In the Jewish world, where rabbis are often respected for their “charisma”, this dynamic is especially problematic. The more charisma a rabbi has, the more power he has to abuse through emotional manipulation. Moreover, charisma, which is one of the primary signs of an abusive or even sociopath personality, makes people believe the abuser’s story rather than the victim’s testimony. The Jewish community has the unfortunate tendency to equate charisma with righteousness, which benefits rabbi abusers and leaves low-status victims struggling alone.
Power also offers abusers means to manipulate the system and even escape. Rabbi Ezra Scheiberg, one of the most high profile rabbis in the religious Zionist community, who was accused earlier this year of sexual assault and rape of a dozen women in Safed, was caught at Ben Gurion trying to flee. In the cases of rapists Baruch Lebovits and Nechemya Weberman in New York, the assailants were surrounded by a massive network of supporters who threatened and at times harmed victims and prosecution witnesses. In Weberman’s case, the DA brought charges against seven supporters, describing threats against the victim, as “trying to kill her soul”. Ultimately, rabbi abusers have access to power and victims do not.
The deleterious impact of these dynamics on victims cannot be understated. Genendy Radoff, an incest survivor and founder of the organization Mitzva L’Sapper, has said, “The ongoing denial by the rabbonim who I approached for help and by my family, was actually more traumatic and devastating than the sexual abuse. Now I wasn’t just abused, I was also being treated like I was crazy, and I was utterly alone.” Grynhaus’ victims were ostracized from their communities, accused of making “ridiculous accusations” against the great man. The family of Yehudis Goldsobel, raped by Menachem Mendel Levy for three years when she was a teenager, was also ostracized from their community — and even after Levy spent 18 months in prison for his crimes, his community continues to celebrate him. Attorney Michael Lesher, who has defended many victims of sexual abuse in the Jewish community, chronicled these and many other outrageous cases of cover-up in his important book, “Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities”.
Rabbi abusers also know how to use Jewish values — or rather, twisted versions of Jewish values — to protect themselves and discredit their victims. The language of “sacred community” and “lashon hara” or “mesirah” are often invoked to silence and shame victims rather than shaming the abusers. In 2000, 100 rabbis signed a letter saying that anyone who goes to outside authorities is a traitor. Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudah, one of the worst offending organizations in protecting abusers, decried victim advocates who go to secular authorities as “display[ing] utter disregard for essential Torah ideals like the requirement to shun lashon hora and hotzo’as shem ra; to show honor for Torah and respect for Torah scholars. I would have added basic fairness to the list. And truth.…” Indeed, when victim and activist Manny Waks came forward about the abuse he experienced in the Chabad Yeshiva College in Melbourne, Australia, he was accused of damaging the community and violating Jewish values by going to the non-Jewish authorities. His entire family was shunned and shamed — in fact his father, a longtime pillar of the Chabad community, was not allowed in synagogue, and eventually had to leave Australia entirely. Community cohesiveness, often invoked to silence critics and oust victims, provides a tremendous network of support and power to rabbi abusers.
In reality, these notions of “community cohesiveness” or libel, are just euphemisms for publicity. Leaders of the Jewish world fear bad publicity. They may call it anti-semitism or Jewish tradition, or not “airing dirty laundry”, but it is nothing more than public relations. Avrohom Mondrowitz, for example, who pretended to be a therapist in order to collect victims, was protected by Gerer Hassidic community protected him for years. Only when non-orthodox victims were discovered did he get indicted on 14 charges including 5 counts of sodomy — but he fled to Israel where he is still protected by the community.
For this reason, whistleblowers get punished too. Lesher, for example, has talked about the death threats that he received because of his work. The most notorious case of this is Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg , a satmar mikveh attendant who walked in on a rabbi raping a little boy in the mikveh, and became a staunch advocate for victims — blogging about sex abuse in his community, opening a New York City hotline to field sex abuse complaints, posting appeals around the world and on social media. For this he is reviled, slandered, hated, feared. He receives death threats on a regular basis, is not counted for a minyan in his community, and has had acid thrown on him while walking down the street in Brooklyn. Most significantly, I believe, is that he was “charged” by the internal “Modesty Brigade” in Williamsburg, whose counsel included the rapist he caught in the act.
Ultimately, the Jewish community is one in which high-profile abusers are often protected by high profile leaders. Gafni is hardly alone in this. Motti Elon, for example, who was convicted of sexual assault against his male students, has a strong following in Israel and abroad, and is frequently invited as a lecturer around the country. His defenders say, “He suffered enough” — as if he is the real victim. Jonathan Rosenblatt, the so-called “sauna rabbi”, was invited by the board to keep his pulpit, despite having taken dozens of boys naked to the sauna over the years. Some people are still defending Grynhaus, saying it was just some bad judgment and that “he stopped when the girls told him to stop” and that we should feel sorry for haredi men in prison because it is “very hard for religious Jews in prison”. Judge Guston Reichbach who sentenced Yona Weinberg to a 13-month jail term for molesting his bar mitzvah students, he said he received more than 90 letters attesting to Weinberg’s character and innocence. None of the letters, the judge noted, “displays any concern or any sympathy or even any acknowledgement for these young victims which, frankly, I find shameful.”
It is much easier to side with high profile abusers than with victims. For high profile members of the community, it is much easier to identify with the abusers, who are “like me”, than with vicitms, who are not as “polished”, who offer nothing in the way of support or protection. “A person can be destroyed if allegations which are baseless are raised against him,” says Rabbi David Zwiebel, Agudath’s executive vice-president. Meaning, the abusers can be destroyed. No mention of what happens to victims.
However, as Nuchem Rosenberg’s story illustrates, we should be suspicious of men who support high-profile abusers, or even men who refuse to acknowledge rape of a minor and whitewash it as “sexual encounters”. We should be asking: what are they hiding? For example, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, one of Motti Elon’s biggest supporters, has also been accused of sexual abuse, but has managed to slip through the accusations. A really important testimony to this comes from Andy Blumenthal, a member of Rosenblatt’s community in Riverdale. After the synagogue board announced that Rosenblatt was staying in his position — a decision led by chairman Donald Liss who overruled the board demand to dismiss Rosenblatt and bulldozed his own position — Andy Blumenthal wrote the following, not about Rosenblatt but about board chair Donald Liss — that is, the one covering for Rosenblatt:
[T]he Chairman of the Board who overruled the community and is protecting Rabbi Rosenblatt…
I grew up in Riverdale from the age of 10 when my family moved from the upper west side of Manhattan. I attended SAR Academy, the local yeshiva. My family had many lovely friends in this community and we attended the RJC where we were members for over 20 years.
Dr. Donald Liss significantly older than myself and my friends growing up frequently invited us to his house in Riverdale to “learn” Torah and for Shabbat meals, although the learning frequently turned into talk and banter and “wrestling.” Dr. Liss, as a doctor of rehabilitative and sports medicine, claimed great interest in my physical fitness as a youth and my practice of martial arts. He started to run and workout with me and my best friend and this at times lead to more “wrestling” matches.
Later Dr. Liss provided me as summer job in his and his brother’s practice at Englewood Hospital. Dr Liss was quite well off and took advantage of me that my family was less so and I needed a job. He provided me the opportunity to work out there in their “gym” during lunch and then when I would change in the locker room, he would invariably show up to talk with me.
Other times, he invited me to go on vacation with his family to the Poconos to babysit his kids. I remember one particular time, I went running on the trail there, and he came. When we got back to the house we were staying in, he dropped all his clothes in the kitchen area in front of me and his wife and totally nude just started talking.
Other times, when I would work out in my apartment in Riverdale with weights or stretching for karate, even during the day, Dr. Liss would show up. And he would also invite my friend and I to his home to lift weights and more “wrestling”.
As I got older and smarter, I realized Dr. Liss’s behavior was not normal, and his interest in my workout and my Torah learning did not seem innocent any longer. I stopped getting together and taking his phone calls. His calling, hang-ups, and messages increased.
That Dr. Liss would now protect Rabbi Rosenblatt and overrule the wishes of the Riverdale Jewish Center is a Chillul Hashem and travesty of justice.
Every word in this blog is true, and I hope it helps the community and the victims to get over this tragedy and desecration of G-d. The good people who wish to grow up and pray without unwanted advances of some sick individuals hiding behind many veils of religion and family deserve their community back.
When Jewish leaders support rabbis accused of abuse instead of listening to testimony of victims, we should be suspect of their motives.
What you can do
So, what should people do in the face of accusations of sexual abuse by high-profile abusers?
· Believe victims
Judith Herman, author of “Trauma and Recovery”, says that all abusers need is silence from bystanders in order to succeed. Neutrality, non-involvement, all of these help abusers. Don’t feed into that. Listen to victims. Just listening and believing is often the most important tool on the way to recovery. Being believed rather than shame goes a long way towards the victims’ healing process.
· Step out of your own experience
More commonly, support for the accused comes from a more mundane human dynamic. People do not want to believe what they have not seen for themselves. Some former Gafni supporters have come forward describing how they did not believe victims until they saw it for themselves. This is a very troubling and at times infuriating dynamic. As if to say, if I haven’t experienced it, it didn’t happen. Don’t be that person, the one who doesn’t believe until they experience it themselves. There is a brilliant Talmudic response to this that the community would be wise to remember: “Eino ro’eh eino ra’ya”, which means, the fact that I haven’t seen it is not a proof of anything. We should all remember that.
· Challenge social hierarchies
Remember that just because he is ‘an important man’ it doesn’t mean that he isn’t capable of doing terrible things. As a community, we should be less star-struck. We should be less impressed by people with power, status, money, fancy job titles, or those million twitter followers. All of those hierarchies create cushioning for abusers. We need as a community to learn to relate to others based on merit, not based on appearances, status, or power.