Photo: Hagai Aharon
Gafni: Accused of sexual harassment
Photo: Hagai Aharon

Facts in Gafni case must be brought to light

Rape charge against controversial rabbi offers rare chance for bi-partisan, international cooperation

In 2002, U.S. Rabbi Baruch Lanner was convicted of aggravated sexual contact and sexual contact, and of endangering the welfare of two teenage girls by touching their breasts while serving as principal of the Hillel Yeshiva in Ocean Township, New Jersey. The girls testified that Lanner also telephoned them at home, made lewd and sexually suggestive comments, and promised one that he would marry her.


But the real tragedy of the story is that Lanner had been accused for years of sexual impropriety, inconsistent and occasionally violent behavior, but students' calls for help were routinely ignored by Lanner's superiors, both at school and at the Orthodox Union, the parent group of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth group that Lanner headed. It took a media expose by the New York Jewish Week to finally force the rabbi to resign both posts and Orthodox Union officials to admit they had allowed a dangerous situation to fester by ignoring warning signs that Lanner posed a danger to his students.


Years of accusations


Israel now finds itself in a similar position with regard to Mordechai Gafni, the charismatic but troubled former leader of the Bayit Chadash community in Jaffa who now stands accused of rape and sexual misconduct. Like Lanner, Gafni is a talented speaker with a magnetic personality. And also like Lanner, he has been dogged by accusations of impropriety (sexual and non-sexual) for years. And, again like Lanner, Gafni has managed to avoid prosecution and punishment for his accused actions for years.


Since the 1980s' Gafni – also known as Marc (Mordechai) Winyarz – has been accused of molesting teenage students as a young rabbi with the now-defunct Jewish Public School Youth organization, and of plagiarizing influential rabbis such as late Yeshiva University rector Rabbi Joseph Dov Soleveitchik and Shlomo Carlebach. One former colleague who experienced Winyarz's sexual advances first-hand says he had a magnetic charm, but was entirely unpredictable and manipulative. "He simply couldn't control himself," she says.


Censure and revocation


As a rabbi in Boca Raton, Florida in the late 1980s, Gafni was censured by the South County Rabbinical Association for ''denigrating'' other congregations, for "undermining" the work of the local kosher food authority and for raiding other synagogues for members. The censure was eventually revoked.


And Rabbi Shlomo Riskin says Gafni's was the only ordination he has ever revoked. Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat and one of Modern Orthodoxy's leading spokesmen.


Since then, there have been no shortage of accusations about Gafni/Winyarz, but like Lanner, nothing has ever been proven.


Unflattering picture


In a 2004 interview with New York Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt, Gafni admitted committing statutory rape as a young rabbi, but dismissed the allegations because he was a "stupid kid and we were in love."


"She was 14 going on 35, and I never forced her," said the rabbi. But unconfirmed reports attributed to that victim paint a rather less flattering picture of their "affair":


"(There he was) in my room, standing over me at my bedside in only his underwear. I had not even heard him come in the door. He lay down next to me and began touching me again, like he had previously. I said, 'Mordechai, no, this is wrong.' It was as if he didn't even hear me. I just shut down and let him do what he was going to do. He continued fondling me, took off all of my clothes and his. He positioned himself on top of me ready for intercourse.


"'When did you get your last period?' he asked. What a weird question. I wasn't sure of the answer. I just made something up. 'That's no good.' He replied. 'You know I could get you pregnant.' He seemed disappointed as he lay beside me. Mordechai took my hand and forced me to help him climax. I had never done anything like that before. I had never even seen a man naked. He ejaculated all over me. I felt horrible. When he was finished he stood abruptly.


"Get cleaned up and come upstairs," he ordered and left the room. But by the time this interview was published, the New York State statute of limitations had expired, and Gafni was never prosecuted.




Now that a formal police complaint has been filed against Gafni regarding his latest his behavior as rabbi of the Bayit Chadash community, there is a rare opportunity for religious, civil and political leaders to cut across partisan, and international, lines.


Especially in light of the apparent failure of Haifa police to act quickly on the current complaints, thus allowing Gafni/Winyarz to flee the country, Israel's legal establishment must move quickly and strongly to investigate the matter, and to determine if indeed there is enough evidence to warrant a trial.


On a political level, Prime Minister Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni and Justice Minister Chaim Ramon must make clear that they will demand Gafni/Winyarz's extradition from the United States should such a move be necessary to bring Gafni to justice.


Chief Rabbis Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar should also join the call for a full investigation, especially in light of the corruption allegations hanging over Metzger's head. Their support for an investigation of Gafni/Winyarz would do something to repair the damage those allegations have done to the profession of "rabbi," and would strengthen ultra-Orthodox claims to be concerned for the ethical make up of this country.


In addition, several well-known rabbinic and civic leaders in both the United States and Israel have supported Gafni/Winyarz for years, and consistently defended him against his many accusers. Now, individuals such as Jacob Ner-David, a Jerusalem-based social activist and entrepreneur, U.S. rabbis Joseph Telushkin, Arthur Waskow and others, must join the call for Gafni to be returned Israel to stand trial, should legal authorities find sufficient basis for such. As individuals who have defended Gafni for many years, their names have also now been called into question.


Whether eventually proven guilty or not, the Gafni/Winyarz case presents a rare, and unfortunate, opportunity to bring justice to a man who has long avoided it. It is an opportunity that must not be squandered.


Andrew Friedman is opinion editor of Ynetnews


פרסום ראשון: 05.19.06, 11:32
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