Jan 15, 2016

A Spiritual Leader Gains Stature, Trailed by a Troubled Past

December 25, 2015

PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. — In his home office overlooking Monterey Bay, Marc Gafni is trying to remake American spirituality. He reads, he writes, and he works to bring a little-known philosophy called integral theory into the mainstream of New Age.

Integral theory “is based on the understanding that evolution itself is an expression of a spiritual universal force of creation embodied in each one of us as us, as unique selves,” said the futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard, who described Mr. Gafni as a leader of the movement.

The members of Mr. Gafni’s think tank, the Center for Integral Wisdom, and their projects are drawn from the worlds of medicine, yoga, meditation and the business-ethics movement known as “conscious capitalism.”

“We take the best of all the major disciplines of wisdom from the premodern period, the modern period and postmodern period,” Mr. Gafni said. “And we integrate them in a kind of renaissance project.”

A co-founder of Whole Foods, John Mackey, a proponent of conscious capitalism, calls Mr. Gafni “a bold visionary.” He is a chairman of the executive board of Mr. Gafni’s center, and he hosts board meetings at his Texas ranch. The Whole Foods website shows a seven-part video series of conversations between the two men.

The new media pioneer Arianna Huffington spoke, via teleconference, at Mr. Gafni’s invitation-only conference last year. The author John Gray has asked Mr. Gafni to help write a sequel to “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.”

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.

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 pseudofeminist witch hunts. (He handed this columnist a copy of “Sexual McCarthyism,” by Alan M. Dershowitz.)

After high school, Mr. Gafni stayed in New York to study. In a 2004 article in The Jewish Week about Mr. Gafni, a woman said he repeatedly sexually assaulted her, over a nine-month period, beginning in 1980, when she was 13. “He told me that if I told anyone, I would be shamed in the community,” The Jewish Week quoted the woman as saying.

Mr. Gafni was quoted saying they had been in love. He added, “She was 14 going on 35, and I never forced her.” In a recent interview, the woman, who asked not to be identified, said that she stood by her account from 2004 and that the encounters were not consensual.

In 1986, when Mr. Gafni was working for Jewish Public School Youth, an outreach program, he was accused by a 16-year-old girl of climbing into bed with her naked while she was staying with him and his wife. “He stalked me for years afterward,” said the woman, Judy Mitzner, who recently wrote about the episode.

Mr. Gafni said that it was “a one-time event” and that Ms. Mitzner was “highly initiatory” and came on to him. Ms. Mitzner said that was not true. “I never initiated anything with him,” she said. No charges were filed in either case.

Mr. Gafni moved to Israel in 1988 and changed his name from Winiarz to Gafni — from a Polish cognate for vine, or wine, to a Hebrew one. He became a popular teacher and briefly had an Israeli television show.

About 2000, with two other rabbis, Mr. Gafni started Bayit Chadash, or New Home, a community that held classes and weekend retreats focused on mysticism and creative worship. “I had known some of the stuff around him,” said Jacob Ner-David, one of his co-founders, adding that, when asked, Mr. Gafni admitted “a monogamy problem.”

But in 2006, while Mr. Gafni was in the United States, Bayit Chadash held a meeting at which several women in the community said that he had been sleeping with each of them and that he had insisted that each keep the affairs secret. Bayit Chadash soon folded.

Several former friends said that his dishonesty and manipulation, not promiscuity, upset them most.

“He swore to me that he never would sleep with students,” said Ebn Leader, a friend of Mr. Gafni’s in Israel and now an instructor at Hebrew College, near Boston. “And when the Bayit Chadash thing exploded, he claimed, ‘I was doing this, yes, but it was consensual.’ ”

Mr. Gafni disputed those comments. “I did not,” he said, “represent myself as someone who didn’t sleep with students.” He said he had asked lovers not for “secrecy” but for “privacy.”

Mr. Gafni published an online apology after moving to Utah. “Clearly all of this and more indicates that in these regards I am sick,” Mr. Gafni wrote. More recently, Mr. Gafni wrote that he regretted the apology and wrote it only to avoid “sensationalist conflict.”

In Utah, Mr. Gafni expanded his interests in non-Jewish mystical movements. He made an eclectic group of friends, including Rocky Anderson, the former mayor of Salt Lake City, who wrote a magazine article defending Mr. Gafni. Mr. Anderson said that he now regretted the article and that Mr. Gafni had plagiarized material from High Road for Human Rights, the nonprofit organization Mr. Anderson founded.

Rabbi Ohad Ezrahi, who teaches in Tel Aviv, said a version of one of his Hebrew-language articles turned up as a chapter in one of Mr. Gafni’s English books, “The Mystery of Love,” without proper attribution.

Mr. Gafni said he did not commit plagiarism.

Mr. Mackey of Whole Foods and Mr. Gray, the author, declined interview requests. Ms. Huffington said Mr. Mackey introduced her to Mr. Gafni, whom she said she had “only met once.”

One Gafni supporter, Sally Kempton, who is a teacher and writer of meditation and Eastern philosophy and a member of his think tank, said he was “a wonderful teacher for mature students” and not someone “young, susceptible women should take as their teacher.”

Mr. Gafni, who has been divorced three times, said that any mistakes might have occurred because he was in denial about his polyamorous nature. “It’s kind of like being a gay guy in the ’50s,” he said. He now lives with his partner, Lori Galperin, a psychotherapist who is on the board of Mr. Gafni’s center.

“I think that one of the things that I’ve learned a lot about over the years,” he said, “is to take more and more responsibility for my impact on people.”

Irit Pazner Garshowitz contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

A version of this article appears in print on December 26, 2015, on page A10 of the New York edition with the headline: A Spiritual Leader Gains Stature, Trailed by a Troubled Past.


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