Demonstrators assembled outside of the Whole Foods supermarket on the Upper West Side late Wednesday morning to protest the close relationship between its CEO, John Mackey, and former rabbi Marc Gafni, a New Age spiritual impresario who now leads the think tank Center for Integral Wisdom. Gafni, the subject of a recent New York Times profile by Mark Oppenheimer, has been accused of numerous abuses of power over the course of decades, including the molestation of a teenage girl who he is quoted as saying was “14 going on 35.”
The protesters were led by Rabbi David Ingber, the spiritual director of Romemu and a former associate of Gafni, who said the demonstration aimed to raise awareness about the connection between Gafni and Mackey, who until recently served as chairman of the executive board of Gafni’s organization, has called his spiritual advisor a “bold visionary,” and partnered with Gafni on numerous projects. Though Mackey is no longer on the board of Gafni’s think tank and a video series between the two has been removed from the Whole Foods website, Mackey has not publicly distanced himself from Gafni.
For Ingber and the other demonstrators, Mackey’s passivity in the face of the severe accusations against Gafni amounts to tacit support. “Instead of stepping forward, John Mackey has hid himself behind a cloud of spin,” said Ingber, whose Change.org petition, titled “Stop Marc Gafni From Abusing Again,” has over 3,500 supporters. “We’re calling upon John Mackey to make a clear statement and to distance himself from Marc Gafni.”
Ingber said the New York protest coincided with the opening of Whole Foods’ first 365 store in Los Angeles, where a parallel demonstration was planned. Subsequent protests will be planned, said Ingber.
Also participating in the demonstration was Matthew Sandusky, adopted son and victim of disgraced Penn State football coach and convicted child molester, Jerry Sandusky, who was representing his nonprofit Peaceful Hearts Foundation. Beyond raising awareness and supporting Gafni’s victims, Sandusky said his presence today was “a statement for other survivors. We’re showing them that you don’t have to be afraid to come forward and speak your truth.”
Susan Levine, a member of the Romemu congregation, said she was participating in the demonstration to raise awareness. “We’re not trying to boycott Whole Foods,” she said. “We all shop here; it’s really about making people aware so that you can’t away with these types of things.” Fellow congregant Lee Kravitz, stressed that he’s there to “bring attention to the fact that the CEO of Whole Foods remains a big supporter of Marc Gafni.”
Moreover, Ingber took issue with Mackey’s involvement with the Conscious Capitalism movement, which promotes higher ideals in the business world including “conscious leadership.” While Whole Foods released a tweet dismissing Mackey’s relationship with Gafni as “his personal business,” Ingber rejects this outright. “What John Mackey does is public. Whom John Mackey supports is public. It’s part of the brand of Whole Foods, and we as consumers have a responsibility to speak out.”
Yitzhak Bronstein is a master’s student at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a regional Jewish educator for Moishe House.