Confronting My Relationship With Marc Gafni

Editor’s note: This is an anonymous submission from a woman who had a relationship with Marc Gafni while he lived in Israel.  She first met him at age 14 in 1985.  Her relationship with him began in 1994, when she was 23, and ended in 2006.

I had a rabbi once.  He was not connected to my local shul.  He led a Jewish youth movement designed to bring public school kids closer to Judaism.  

I had recently started keeping Shabbos when I met him, or what I understood of Shabbos at the time. I loved the peace of a Friday night without television, devoted to spirituality.  I enjoyed instituting dinner with my family, complete with kiddush and challah.  My brother was away that first weekend when we did that.  He must have been at a Jewish Public School Youth (JPSY) Shabbaton, an overnight retreat.  I wasn’t old enough to go yet.  The next Shabbos, my brother and I started going to shul together.  

I met my rabbi for the first time with my brother at a rally for Soviet Jews.  It was a brief meeting that I might have just forgotten about if he hadn’t called me afterwards.  Come to think of it, I usually didn’t get calls from grown men.  That conversation was memorable, if not for the words exchanged, then for the energy that came through the telephone while we were speaking.  It’s hard to describe.  

The way he spoke was electric.   I wouldn’t have admitted it to myself then, in fact I didn’t admit it to myself until I was sixteen and even then I wrote the words on a piece of paper and quickly tore them up into a million pieces; I wouldn’t have admitted that I fell in love with him during that first phone call.  He was a grown-up.  He was a rabbi.  He was married.  

We must have talked about Jewish stuff and other stuff.  He always wanted to know what books I was reading.  He wowed me by quoting Shakespeare off the top of his head, when I was reading a play for school.  He gently teased me for the “teeny bopper” romance novels I was fond of.   He even told me that he loved Nancy Drew and dreamed of buying the entire original set.  He told me it was a secret.  Our very first one.

The next time I saw him was at my school.  I had just started ninth grade and he came to a meeting of our JSPY chapter.  I was too shy to talk to him. The other kids referred to him as “the cool rabbi.”   Soon after that, I attended my first Shabbaton.   The leader would stand up on the chairs and get everybody singing and chanting Jewish songs.  He would tell stories that touched our souls.  He would create this incredible energy in the room.  He would encourage us to close our eyes and not worry whether people were watching us.  I felt safe in his presence.  My commitment to Judaism grew.

He invited me to his home for Shabbos.  There must have been fifteen kids there, teenagers.  Boys slept upstairs in the living room and girls slept downstairs in the basement.  I loved being at his house for Shabbos.  It was so peaceful.  There was no yelling in his house.  Sometimes he would make an off-color remark that his beautiful wife would sweetly chide him for, but other than that, no visible strife between them.  In fact, he would sometimes walk down the street holding hands with his wife, a bit scandalous in the Orthodox world.  

I would imagine myself in the role of his wife, assuming it was normal for a baal teshuvah (a Jew who had grown up largely secular, then become Orthodox) to try on the identity of an Orthodox woman in her imagination, identifying with the role, seeing if it fit.  

There was about a year of Shabbatonim in different neighborhoods around New York City and weekends at his house, and phone calls in between, before he decided to leave New York and take a job in Florida for reasons unbeknownst to me.  He had dinner with my family in a kosher restaurant before he left New York.  I gave him a parting gift of a book, a parable that I loved and thought he would appreciate too.  It was on his bookshelf years later when I visited his apartment in Jerusalem.  

We didn’t speak often in the intervening years, but now and then I would hear from him.  He would tell me that I had a friend in the world.   He would ask questions about my life.  My heart would leap whenever I was surprised with a phone call from him.  In the meantime, I became more and more immersed in Judaism, even accepting upon myself the Jewish laws of shomer negiah and tznius, forbidding an unmarried man and woman to touch outside of marriage, and requiring modest dress.

Over the years, during our occasional phone calls, I felt I could tell him anything. Keeping secrets from him seemed pointless anyway because it felt like he could see clear through to my soul.  Even when I had moved away from Orthodox Judaism, early in my college years, I felt I could tell him and he would understand.  Some things he just knew without me telling him and it felt validating being known like that.

At 23, I arrived in Jerusalem with a plan to spend the summer studying Torah and then find a job.  He was the first person I called. He had moved to Israel with his wife and two young children after he left Florida.  After his divorce he moved to Jerusalem.  When he moved to Israel he Hebraicized his last name to Gafni and most people called him by his first name, Mordechai.  It was strange, but I began to get used to it.   

I started going to his classes.  They were brilliant and they made me fall in love with Judaism all over again.  His Torah was beautiful and I couldn’t get enough.  One Shabbos I walked over to his house eager to meet his young sons who he had for Shabbos as well as to spend time with him.  We spent the entire day together, into the evening. We walked, the four of us holding hands, his sons between us, playing family.  We went to the playground, playing on the equipment along with the children, and later studying Torah on the side.  At one point I noticed an ant crawling on his back and told him.  He told me to brush it off.  I tentatively lifted my hand and brushed an ant off my rabbi’s back, touching him for the very first time.  

Later that evening after he brought his sons home, we sat at his dining room table learning a beautiful Torah about the souls of those studying Torah kissing the souls of the sages as we read their commentary.  Then he moved to the couch and said, “You’re far away.”  

That was not the start of our sexual relationship.  That was the start of the confusing mixed messages, the push and pull that characterized our relationship for as long as it lasted.  He brought me close, he encouraged me to divulge my feelings for him, leaving me vulnerable. He told me there were a few women since his divorce, then he quickly listed ten reasons why a relationship between us wouldn’t work, and in the way that I always found myself listening for the message between his words, I understood that he had given the matter a lot of thought.  

The next day in class, he spoke about the biblical Joseph who rejected the advances of Potiphar, Pharaoh’s wife, with many words and explanations.  “How many words,” he asked, “does it take to say ‘no’?”  I knew he was speaking directly to me.  

Later came a phone call in the middle of the night.  A startling phone call which didn’t mesh at all with the vision I had of him.  I hadn’t understood that the move to the couch was part of a process of seduction, but this phone call left nothing to the imagination.  

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He asked me to come to his apartment then, in the middle of the night.  I wanted to see him, to make sense of this person I was speaking to, breathing hard while he spoke, and reconcile it with the person I knew.  He then told me not to come over.  He went into some long explanation about why it was a bad idea, none of which I remember.  

I had been saving certain experiences to enjoy for the first time within marriage, but that no longer seemed important in light of the possibility of a night with Mordechai.  He told me that it wouldn’t be holy, but I couldn’t imagine a night with him being anything but.

A few days later he engineered a situation where I had to enter his bedroom late at night to retrieve my shoes that he had suggested I leave there.  As if he didn’t know that I would be back for them, he was in bed with the lights out already.  Protecting himself preemptively, he told me before anything began that it was my responsibility.  I accepted.

I was loyal to him. At his insistence, I promised not to tell my future husband, my therapist, my family, or my friends.  It was a secret that could destroy him and it wasn’t mine to tell.  I knew he would never forgive me if I told anyone and I was pretty sure that I was incapable of surviving in the world without him.  The first months and years after I cut off all ties with him, I marveled that I was still alive, laughing at the absurdity that I thought I would die without him.  I don’t know why I thought that but I know that I did. For twelve years I was alone in my love, alone in my pain.  Alone in a roller coaster of emotions that I couldn’t make sense of because I was never allowed to process them out loud.  Ever.

He had a sixth sense.  He didn’t call very often, but he always called when I was thinking of walking away. I had only remained in Jerusalem for a year but intermittent calls and visits when he traveled abroad followed me.  He would call and ask me how long we had been friends.   After years of hearing this question and understanding that he was calling upon my continued loyalty to him, I once pointedly answered him, “Since I was 14.”  He responded to the subtext beneath my words, “I don’t really remember you from back then,” he answered; quickly erasing years of closeness that did not include sexual expression, in an effort to make what was unseemly appear acceptable.  

He apologized to me once, a long-overdue apology that I am sure was not sincere, but was an attempt to keep me on his side after his world came crashing down when charges of sexual harassment were filed against him and the spiritual community he had created, crumbled.  He said that he was sorry if he ever hurt me sexually.  What he should have apologized for were the secrets; and for the intense loneliness of loving someone who was basically a figment of his own imagination and never being able to talk to another living being about it; the manipulation; the contempt which I tried hard not to notice; the loss of trust in my own perception; and the havoc those secrets wreaked on my relationships.

The painful longing for something seemingly so sweet designed to always dangle just out of my reach both hurt me and kept me hooked.  I read about a study once, about pigeons.  One group of pigeons received a pellet to eat every time they pressed a lever with their beaks.  They pressed the lever often.  Another group never got a pellet when they pressed the lever.  They soon stopped pressing.  The third group got pellets intermittently when they pressed.  They could never be sure if one would appear or not.  They pressed at a feverish pitch.  I felt like those pigeons.  He would throw me a small pellet of intimacy every so often.  He suggested once that we could get together on a weekly basis and study Torah together, but that was the same night that our Torah study led to an intimate conversation on his couch, and it never happened again.  He would casually mention that I should have a key to his apartment, but then get angry at me if I even showed up at his door unannounced.

I continue to pray that I will never love another man the way I loved him.  Differently, perhaps, but not the way I loved him.  Even at the time I felt that that intensity should be reserved for God, not for man.  It was an addiction, a need.  I knew it was bad for me even when it began.  What I didn’t know is that my experience was not an accident.  Mordechai started a process on that couch that transformed the feelings that I had for him into something else, that turned love into an addiction.  He is a smart man and he knew what he was doing.  

Warnings that if it happened again we couldn’t be friends were followed by undeniable advances.  At night he would determine that the nature of our relationship would change, that it would cease to be sexual, that it wasn’t the highest expression of our best selves.  He even blamed the fact that his books weren’t doing well on our relationship.  The next morning his resolution would fall by the wayside.  He always blamed me for not being the strong one and resisting his advances, but I would melt at the slightest touch, at the slightest hint of warmth from the man whose friendship and love I craved.   

Over the years my perception of him gradually shifted.  I went from truly believing that he was perfect to thinking of him as human and noticing his foibles: that he would always put himself first; the constant name dropping; the absence of a heartfelt apology even before Yom Kippur when a Jew is supposed to ask forgiveness from people and from God.  

Eventually something shifted in me and I began to let go.  For all his talk about how important each and every person is, how one should always know the name of their waitress and their cab driver, it became clear that his universal love for mankind was not more loving than that of ordinary people, but less.  Not letting a cab driver take you from point A to point B without knowing his name, makes little sense in a world where you sleep with a woman who loves you and looks up to you and don’t call her for two months afterwards.  

Toward the end, I said to him, “I wouldn’t tolerate that treatment from anyone else, but I want you in my life.”  I meant it, but was horrified when I heard myself say it, and his silence said what I needed to know.  I never imagined that he was in love with me.  But I had thought he loved me.  That a man of his stature who had known me since I was 14 years old, a man who I thought of as holy, was okay with treating me worse than I would allow any other person in my life to treat me, the incongruity of it suddenly became apparent.

During that same pivotal conversation he brought up a time when we had seen each other in Los Angeles, where I traveled as often as I could to visit my grandparents to whom I was extraordinarily close.  My grandfather was ailing at the time, and Mordechai casually said, “Wasn’t somebody dying?”  I was taken aback by the question and grew silent.  The loss still hurt, as it still does today.  He laughed at my silence over the phone asking, “why are you so stunned?”

It was a chilling moment.  It was in that moment that I was hit with the realization that this was a man who had never loved anyone.  Not, never been in love, never loved at all. If he had, he couldn’t have spoken so callously.  

After my moment of clarity, I went to the bookstore.  I picked up The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout.  I read it right there in the book store.  I read a few more books.  Even after I became convinced that he was a narcissist and a sociopath, when he called and asked if he could stay for a few days I decided to give it one more try.  That visit was the last I saw of him.  Once I knew he was a narcissist, I saw it in everything he said or did.  It may have been my newfound awareness that opened my eyes to what had always been there, but I think his narcissism was growing and was becoming harder to hide.  After years of lying about the allegations that he had had a sexual encounter with a sixteen year old girl, while in his twenties and already a rabbi, her rabbi, he finally admitted that it had happened.  “It was 20 minutes out of her life and it ruined mine,” he said, his voice dripping with malice.  

He called me in a panic when he arrived back in Israel in 2006 to charges that were filed in his absence and again after he fled back to the States.  It seemed for a moment that he would examine the role he played in hurting so many people.  For myself, I was more than ready to forgive. I thought I could help him face the truth and become a better version of himself. Very soon however, his phone calls stopped sounding like the calls of a man engaged in teshuva, in the process of returning to goodness, of repairing. He asked me at one point if he was Jesus and “is this the crucifixion?” They started to sound like the calls of a narcissist engaged in using his quiet time to build a case against the women who claimed he hurt them.  Using the internet I was able to get in touch with one of these women.  I spent the better part of a day with her, talking, processing, experiencing revelations.  It was a day of healing.

As I write this I have been on an emotional journey.  I have revisited moments I had forgotten.  I have become reacquainted with a pain that I have not known since, a loneliness that was palpable, that lifted when I let him go.  And going back in time, I have been reminded of the love that I felt for him and the person that I thought he was.  On the one hand I am embarrassed by my naiveté, and on the other, I feel an unexpected panic rising that I could be devastating a good man who was my friend.  I know he will see this article as a betrayal of the worst kind.  I also know that I and all of the women and men who trusted him are the ones who have actually been betrayed.

I feel giddy with the thought of letting out my secret and scared to death that I am making a mistake I can’t take back.  What do I hope to accomplish?  I don’t know if Mordechai still has secret women, now that he doesn’t pretend to be monogamous, but I imagine he still does.  I always knew there must be others out there and on some level I knew that if I could speak to them and hear their stories, things would start to make a little more sense.  So I write for them, but I also write for me.   I write because freedom is glorious and being freed from the grip of this enforced silence is liberating.  Mostly I think I write to be understood.  This is a piece of my story and understanding it is a necessary part of understanding me.