Acknowledging History’s Harm: Sexual Abuse and Harassment in Jewish Renewal

How is history remade?

Jewish Renewal’s 2006 ban against Mordechai Gafni is a salient example. This ban is frequently mentioned as proof of Jewish Renewal’s credentials when it comes to dealing with sexual predators.

But history is messy. As a historian, I have not found any recorded evidence to support any claims of “pathfinding” Jewish Renewal responses to the many women who had, for twenty years, anonymously informed a range of Jewish leaders about the abuse they endured at Gafni’s hands. The record suggests otherwise: Reb Zalman and other Jewish Renewal leaders resisted taking action against Gafni.

For decades, Gafni moved from one position to another amid a swirl of rumors and allegations. Nevertheless, Jewish Renewal leaders embraced Gafni and they defended him.

In 2004, Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week interviewed three women, who were aged 13, 16, and 22 when Gafni assaulted them (for a searing account from one of those women, who went public years later, click here). Rosenblatt consulted Zalman; after all, Gafni had just found a home in Jewish Renewal and was considered a rising star by many in the movement.

Rosenblatt wrote: “Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the acknowledged leader of the Renewal movement, said he is aware of the allegations against Rabbi Gafni but supports him. ‘If you want to find fly specks in the pepper, you can always find them,’ Reb Schachter-Shalomi said. ‘But I’ve watched him teach. He is learned, exciting and charismatic. A good teacher is one who gets people excited.’”

It would take two more years before Reb Zalman issued a herem against Gafni. Though Jewish Renewal leaders had long known about the rumors and allegations, the ban was only filed after three women filed an official complaint with Israeli police accusing Gafni of rape, harassment, and indecent assault in May of 2006.

Why?

Charismatic leaders are often protected (enabled) by their followers. Reverence and deference can prevent followers from acknowledging harmful behaviors. It can silence those who try to speak out.

Charismatic leaders often become pristine characters in the minds of their devotees. Jewish Renewal leaders rely on the phrase “Reb Zalman said…” either to support an idea or to quash it.

Charismatic leadership remains prioritized in Jewish Renewal. Sadly, the lack of oversight and accountability for such leaders has also been a feature of its institutions.

Given this legacy, it is unsurprising that sexual harassment and other abuses of power continue to be normalized and excused. Uninformed leaders have preferred, like so many before them, to enable and protect predatorial behavior. Perpetrators have been protected. Even when appeals committees have noted gross failures on the part of past Ethics Committees, failures that included not only frightening ignorance about the matters under concern, but conflicts of interest and even bias in favor of the accused, there has been no accountability for such failures, much less any teshuva of any kind. Complainants have been brushed aside.

Recently, I learned from a former student of the ALEPH Ordination Program (AOP) that when she was sent her application packet in 2016, it included a 2003 article by Rami Shapiro entitled “The Three-Fold Torah.” Shapiro highlighted the “revolutionaries” of the Jewish Renewal movement, among them, Mordechai Gafni.

That AOP’s administration did not think to consider what message was being sent to prospective students is deeply disturbing. Is Gafni’s history as a sexual predator – or Jewish Renewal’s late response to that history – irrelevant?

Someone will surely claim this was an “oversight.” We should ask, however, whether such an “oversight” is rather a symptom part of the longstanding tendency to downplay or brush aside evidence of bullying, sexual harassment, and abuse in Jewish Renewal settings.

As a former AOP student, then a faculty member, then a Vaad member, and then AOP’s first Dean of Faculty, I can say this much: sexual harassment and bullying were not exceptional behaviors but (and not infrequently), tolerated ones. Student complaints were generally met with “Oh, that’s just….. (fill in a name).” Boundary breaking, bullying, and sexually abusive behavior was a quirk of character and didn’t need to be taken seriously.

Recently, a group of Jewish Renewal rabbis, cantors, and rabbinic pastors issued a Call to Action regarding sexual harassment and bullying in our institutions. We have been glad to find that we are being taken very seriously indeed by leaders in Ohalah and, now, in ALEPH. We believe that there may be hope for addressing institutions which have, in the past, featured little to no transparency, no accountability, and no oversight for its leaders, its teachers, and even those it ordains.

There are many steps in this process. One is to address unfortunate legacies of enabling perpetrators and silencing victims.

Efforts to erase or rewrite history are symptomatic of a larger problem: the unwillingness to fully acknowledge past harm. No trust can be built without such honest and frank acknowledgment.

What we do now is a test of our intentions, our integrity, and our ethics.

We must own our history, not rewrite it.

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