Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Rabbi Mordecai Gafni's Teachings to a Teenage Girl

The anonymous girl in Gary Rosenblatt's article writes:

I was thirteen, entering 9th grade at a yeshiva high school in NY. Mordechai Winiarz (now known as Marc Gafni) appeared at my parent's shabbat table, I think in early September. He was a Rabbinical student at YU. He offered to tutor me in Talmud, a new subject for girls in 9th grade in my school. He invited me over to Lincoln Square Synagogue, where he offered to help me out with learning Buba Metziah, if I would meet him on Shabbat afternoon in one of their class rooms.

After our first lesson, he walked me home, and proceeded to tell me how "special" I was, and that he really liked me. I got a weird feeling about this, but being completely inexperienced with adult men, I didn't have a clue about how to respond to this. I was a very sheltered religious girl. I wore long skirts and long sleeves, had told boys in 8th grade that I would not touch them as I believed in "negiah". I had no experience with boys, or men, for that matter, except for a few wonderful teachers I had in school.

Also, there was a lot going on for me and my family at the time. My mom was just getting over breast cancer, having gone through a year of chemotherapy. She was very sick and we were all frightened. My rather large family was in crisis due to this, and I would say that due to this trauma, not a lot of attention or attentiveness was being sent my way. Considering the circumstances, my family was doing the best they
could. Mordechai asked if I would like to "learn" with him, and I said OK.

Over the next month, he continued to tell me how much he liked me and how "special" I was, but told me that I must not tell any one that he felt this way. He told me that if my parents knew about it, they would blame me for associating with him, and that I would be shamed in my community. He told me that we had to keep it a secret, because most people just wouldn't understand. As far as I understood at that point,
we had a friendship, and I was getting some extra attention from an adult at a time when there wasn't a lot adult attention to go around in my family. My Dad was overworked, and my mom was recovering from cancer. I didn't quiet understand why I should be silent about the things Mordechai told me. He hadn't touched me yet, but was doing a fine job of "grooming me" into being silent and fearful. He convinced
me that I had to be loyal to him, and "not tell" about how he felt about me. I believed everything he told me. In retrospect, he calculatedly brainwashed me into silence, hooked me into an emotional trap, ensuring that I wouldn't tell my parents.

Then he asked my parents if he could stay at our house over shabbat, because he wanted to be able to walk to a synagogue in our part of the city. They said OK. (My parents had no idea that they should suspect him of anything. After all, he was a religious guy from YU.) It was then that he started coming into my room after I had fallen asleep, and waking me up. I remember clearly that when he tried to touch me, I pushed him away repeatedly. I remember saying, "no, no, no!" I knew intuitively that it just wasn't OK with me. But he was larger and stronger than me, and after a huge struggle, he overcame me. Week after week, he would come into my bedroom and woke me up in the middle of the night, and I would fight to keep him from touching me. Every time, I was overcome by him physically. He had already done the job of
convincing me that if I told one I would be shamed by my family and my community, so I kept silent about what was going on. I hated it, was disgusted by it, and I was terrified, but there was no place I could talk about it or get help. I also had no words for what was happening to me, it was horrible and indescribable. I think of myself back then as a 13 year old girl who had to become disconnected from the world
around her, it was full of contradiction and betrayal, and I had been trapped in this horrible situation with, as far as I could see, no way out. I walked around my neighborhood, a place that had always been familiar and safe for me, and I no longer felt connected to anything.

I remember on one of the nights that he came into my room, woke me up and was trying to molest me, he told me that he and his brother were abused by their mother, who was a holocaust survivor. He told me that she stuck their heads in the kitchen oven. There was a very clear message that because of what had happened to him, he couldn't help but doing what he was doing to me, and he pleaded with me to understand
that, have compassion with him, and comply. More than once, he told me what he was doing was because of the way I looked, or because he just couldn't control himself. He described the world to me as he saw it, full of boys and men who just could not control their sexual impulses, and like them, he really couldn't help himself- he just had to do what he was doing to me. He just had no choice. He added, as part of his rationalization, that the guys at YU were always masturbating, but no
one talked about it.

But he was tormented by the fact that he had no control over himself. Each morning after the molestation experience, I would wake up and walk into the living room, and see him shuckling wildly, beating his chest, doing "teshuva" for what he had done the night before. He told me that I should join him in doing teshuva too! Amazingly, he really believed that I was a partner in sin. Of course, I didn't "daven" or do "teshuva", but just stared at him in disbelief. And even after this fervent bout of repentance, he would wake me up in the middle of the night the next week.

I also remember him practicing sermons in front of me. He would pace around, gesticulating and dramatizing this or that phrase from the Torah. He wanted to be just like Rabbi Riskin, and he did a great job emulating Riskin's body language and speech patterns. He talked a lot about gaining popularity and getting to be a powerful leader. Mordechai made it clear that he wanted to be a "big Rabbi", a
"tzaddik". It seemed to me that he just loved to hear himself talk.

The abuse went on through the year I was in 9th grade. The school year was almost over, I remember it was warm out. He called me on the phone one day to tell me that he would no longer be coming over. He realized that what he really needed was to get married soon, and he explained that this would give him a proper outlet for his sexuality. Its hard to describe how I felt at that moment, because it is complex. My molester finally decided to stop abusing me, to leave me alone, to move on. You
would imagine I would feel great relief, but actually the full weight of the abuse I had endured in silence came crashing down on me. Here I was, left with this horrible experience, still with no one to talk to about it, and no language for it anyway. And he wasn't retreating because I had some how managed to make him stop, but because he decided it just wasn't worth the risk any more. He was terrified that he would do more and make me pregnant- then there would be no way to keep his
secret. Until then, his abuse included exposing my body against my will, forcibly touching my breast, grabbing my hand and forcing me to touch his penis, and forced digital vaginal penetration. All were the most horrifying, degrading and painful experiences for me. All this only a year or so after my bat mitzvah.

After his phone call, I knew that I no longer had to endure his abuse, but now I had to figure out how to survive it, and what I really wanted to do was escape the world that had allowed this to happen to me. I understand that what I was going through is called post-traumatic stress these days. But in those days, and in my community, the words sexual violence, sexual abuse, or molestation, sexual trauma, were just
not house-hold concepts. I knew there was no way any one would believe my story, and if anything, what happened would be misunderstood or minimized and dismissed.

After a while, I figured the best thing to do was to "put the experience away" until I could figure out how to deal with it. During the abuse, I had, out of necessity, become pretty good at compartmentalizing myself, and leaving my body when something was happening to it that I hated, but couldn't control. I was also good at "putting away" the things that were just too complex and painful to deal with at the time. This is how I survived the rest of high school.

I tried to escape the trauma I had endured by spending the next school year in Israel, doing my best to push it out of my immediate reality. Upon returning from Israel for the 11th grade, I began to withdraw from the Orthodox world. I made it to college and embraced college life. My twenties were about getting as far away from what had happened to me as possible. I was determined to be free of a world that had betrayed me, and to embrace the world as a secular Jewish college kid. It wasn't until much later that I was really able to deal with the trauma of what
had happened.

While in high school, I had told some of my siblings, who were shocked. No one knew what to do with my story. I told a male NCSY counselor, who had no response, except to look very uncomfortable. When I was 18, I told my parents, who were also shocked, and enraged. But no one knew how to deal with he information I was sharing.

It wasn't until about 10 years ago, that I began to speak out more widely about what had happened to me. In 1994, I wrote a letter to Rabbi Riskin, and told him my story. I never received a response from him. I continue to tell the story to any one who wants to know about it. Many people have contacted me over the years. People who had a "creepy" feeling about Mordechai, or who had heard rumors, but wanted to hear a first hand account.

I tell my story for the following reasons:

If there is any way I can protect another girl or woman from going through what I went through, I will do it. If there is any way I can protect a parent from having their child victimized, and having to deal with the pain and guilt of not having known enough to protect their child, I will do it.

Unfortunately, I knew Mordechai very well. He told me a lot about himself, and I knew him as a sexually compulsive, sexually violent man. After talking with counselors, lawyers, and professionals who advise and counsel sexual perpetrators, I learned that in 99% of cases, people who compulsively sexually abuse girls or women, especially those who were abused themselves as children, don't stop. These are dangerous people. The more we are silent about them, the more they have the
freedom to act out their sexual compulsions. Further first hand accounts show that Mordechai continued to molest young women after he was married. Unfortunately, marriage did not solve his problems. There is no reason for me to assume he is not still victimizing girls and women. Back when I knew him, he was a refined manipulator, "groomer", "brain-washer", and he used those skills in order to victimize girls and young women. I have no doubt that, years later, he has honed his skills as a predator.

A couple of years ago, Mordechai asked one of his supporters to contact me, to see if we could meet. I was told that he wanted to make peace with me. I read a letter that he wrote, stating that he regretted that our "relationship" didn't work out, and that he wished he had waited for me to come of age and had married me. He really thought that we had a mutually consenting relationship, and that I was hoping that he would take me as his bride! There was no acknowledgment that he did anything
against my will, and certainly no recognition of the gravity of his actions. He was trying to contact me because he knew I was telling my story, and he wanted to stop the bad PR, not because he wanted to make amends, do "teshuva", or own up in any way to what he did. His statements to Gary Rosenblatt, "I never forced her...she was 14 going on 35" are the farthest from the truth. Anyway, I expected that he would be smarter than to make these transparently self incriminating statements. Like your classic pedophile, he claimed that the child was consenting, loved him back, and really liked what was going on. There is no reason for me to believe that Gafni has reformed his ways. There is every reason for me to speak out and protect others from him.

Of all people, Mordechai should not be teaching people about Judaism - any "variety of Judaism" - Orthodox or Jewish Renewal, or any other Jewish trend. Yes, he is smart, charismatic, knows how to excite people, bring people in. Are we that desperate for someone to attract wayward Jews to Judaism, that we condone a sexual predator doing it?

Should Judaism be taught to spiritual seekers by someone who has molested minors and attacked young women? If we want a formula for misrepresentation...and turning people off to Judaism for good - we've got one.