Monday, October 04, 2004

In Defense Of Rabbi Mordecai Gafni

Jacob Ner-David, Avraham Leader, Neil Markowitz -- board members of Bayit Chadash -- emailed board members of American Friends of Bayit Chadash:

As we shared with you recently a group of people -who for the past twenty years have been sadly but determinedly antagonistic to Rabbi Gafni and all he represents - viewing him as a threat to the future of Orthodoxy - have done all they could to remove him from public discourse. Their accusations are simply not true; they have been looked at carefully and dismissed by every fair minded person who has encountered them.

Attached please find a letter to the Editor written by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Rabbi Saul Berman and Rabbi Tirzah Firestone which summarized and rebuffs the false accusations leveled in the Jewish Week article.

We are in fully constructive Bayit Chadash mode...engaging in all of our forms of teaching; television production, student classes, book projects, public festivals and events and of course funding raising as well.

As you can imagine - in this trying time your support of Bayit Chadash in general and of Rabbi Gafni personally is essential. We will walk past this break in the road, gently and confidently and with God’s help reach heights we never dreamed were possible.

Here's the letter from rabbis Telushkin, Berman and Firestone:

To the Editor,

Words can elevate and words can destroy.

There was a time when the Jewish community too glibly and carelessly disregarded words of accusation of sexual abuse against clergy. That was clearly wrong, and Gary Rosenblatt of The Jewish Week helped to correct that. The pendulum has now
swung to the opposite extreme, as evidenced in Rosenblatt’s column (The Re-Invented Rabbi, 9/24/04).

The column reports an allegation concerning a relationship from twenty-five years ago – when Rabbi Mordechai Gafni was 19 and 20 and not yet a rabbi – in a situation where he had no pastoral relationship with the person in question. Rabbi Gafni has a completely different account of what happened which was not clearly related in the article (including the fact that nothing even vaguely resembling sexual relations took place).

Furthermore, we can attest first hand that several years ago Rabbi Gafni made serious attempts to contact this woman in a therapeutically-mediated context—to clarify the huge gulf in their understandings of what happened and, if necessary, to apologize for any way in which she felt hurt. This offer was rejected and the decision was apparently made that the press was a more appropriate vehicle for conversation.

The story also reports unsubstantiated allegations which are twenty-years old. The story critically omits the fact that the professional to whom Rabbi Gafni (then Winiarz) was responsible at the time conducted an investigation, and drew the following conclusions in a formal report which was accepted by his superiors:

“I’ve known Rabbi Winiarz for the past six years, and I believe I speak of his character from a position of knowledge and reliability… In his work as director of Jewish Public School Youth, allegations were made as to his improper conduct with a teenage girl and a young female adult [referred to in the article as Judy and Susan]… For several months, in the spring and summer of 1986, I delved into the accusations and had numerous conversations with a number of people who were associated with Rabbi Winiarz both professionally and personally. I also talked to the accusing parties as well as members of their families, rabbis close to them and agency personnel involved in the work of JPSY. I also, of course, spoke at length to Rabbi Winiarz about these matters. It was my conclusion, based on clear and compelling reasons, that the accusations were not true and were not substantiated. I might add that this was also the view of a clinical psychologist who interviewed Rabbi Winiarz and the teenager after the alleged incident.”

We have collectively looked at this issue again in the last six months, and come to a similar conclusion. Further, Rabbi Gafni has long expressed his desire to meet with any of the parties who feel he has wronged them—even when he has a completely different account of the situation.

We, like Gary Rosenblatt, have struggled with the question of what gravity to assign to persistent rumors. Our conclusion differs from that of Mr. Rosenblatt. We have collectively, over many years, spoken to virtually everyone who would speak to us who was directly involved in order to examine the accusations against Rabbi Gafni. We have found them totally not convincing. Further, there is simply no evidence that Rabbi Gafni’s public role constitutes a risk to Jewish women, or to anyone for that matter.

We pray that this unfair scandalous moment will soon be forgotten and that Rabbi Gafni will be able to free his spiritual energy and formidable intellect in order to help build Jewish consciousness and commitment.

Rabbi Saul J. Berman, Director of Edah
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of Jewish Literacy and The Book of Jewish Values
Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, Congregation Nevei Kodesh, author of With Roots in Heaven and
The Receiving