Ten years ago I reconnected with Mordechai Gafni in Jerusalem. I had first met him as a thirteen-year-old in Camp Lavi, and then a few years later we were both arrested at a Soviet Jewry protest. Over the years I heard vague stories about him, but never paid much attention to the rumors or hearsay. As an activist often in the public eye, I knew how little merit those rumors usually held.
Mordechai shared with me his dreams and visions for the future of the Jewish people, Jewish thought, and the world, which closely matched my thinking — just expressed a lot more eloquently and with more passion. I found in Mordechai, and then Avraham Leader, partners to transform Jewish life in Israel; together we created Bayit Chadash. Althoug sometimes Leader and I wonder whether we should have suspected Mordechai was hiding untold stories from us, we didn’t. We had “checked him out” with, among others, Avraham Infeld, then president of Melitz.
Bayit Chadash grew — much of it due to Mordechai’s charismatic leadership. By the sixth year of working together, we had created a powerful brand, and we were connecting with thousands of Israelis. And then…
When Mordechai’s marriage ended, he mentioned he was interested in “meeting people” — but quickly stated that he would never “date” a student or staff person at Bayit Chadash; unfortunately he did both. All of the women with whom he had relationships were sworn into silence. But this past spring, at Pesach, we celebrated JuBu, a festival inthe Judean desert devoted to dialogue between Judaism and Buddhism. Before, during, and just after the few days in the desert, women came to Avraham and me to tell a story of how Mordechai had abused the teacher-student relationship. The stories were very different and all the same.
In consultation with the Bayit Chadash Board and the women involved, we removed Mordechai immediately from the staff of Bayit Chadash. We hoped that this series of transgressions and our response to the abuse would put an end to his ability to resurface somewhere else. Charismatic leadership had covered up a deep and tragic sickness for too long. We felt sullied by our trust in him, and in order to right a deep and tragic wrong, we decided to inform the world that Mordechai suffers from what is perhaps an incurable disease, and he should never again be put in a position that could lead to replaying the past. We knew this decision would obliterate what we had spent seven years building, and today Bayit Chadash is no longer. But we have no regrets about our decision.
We are so thirsty for leadership in the Jewish world today that many of us are ready to overlook a lot. But the time has come for us to say GENUG! We cannot maintain leaders whose personal lives are anathema to the broad ethics of how we should live, work, and play. We cannot imbue power in a person of great charisma who has a murky past without investigating that past. Though we must avoid the “witch hunt,” which can seriously destroy the reputation of an innocent if questionable character, we must establish avenues so that victims of abuse can safely step forward with their experiences. And we must not cover up the bad behavior of our leaders because it is shameful. We must demand a lot more of ourselves and our community. Hopefully, our decision at Bayit Chadash will help other communities stand up and take painful but oh-so-necessary action. And may we be blessed with leaders who represent the best that we have to bring to the world.email print