When Chaim Levin, who grew up in the Lubavitcher hasidic community of Crown Heights, became bar mitzva, the Torah portion he was assigned to read was both painful and ironic.
It was Leviticus 20:13, which includes the phrase, “If a man also lieth with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death.”
“It was pretty strange that on the day of my bar mitzva in my synagogue in front of my family I had to read that portion,” Levin, now 23, told NJJN. “I was definitely conflicted but I knew I was gay. I felt very isolated and I did not know what I was going to do.”
When he was 18, a rabbi connected Levin with Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, JONAH, a Jersey City-based nonprofit that offers what is sometimes referred to as “conversion therapy” for those with what JONAH calls “unwanted same-sex sexual attractions.”
Last week Levin and three other gay men — three Jews and one Mormon — filed suit against JONAH under New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act.
In a 25-page complaint filed Nov. 27, the plaintiffs and the mothers of two of them assert that such therapy has been discredited by the American Psychological and Psychiatric Associations, which reject the notion that being gay is a mental disorder.
It also claims JONAH clients were told to undress and masturbate in front of a counselor, “cuddle and intimately hold others of the same-sex,” “violently beat an effigy of the client’s mother with a tennis racket,” visit gyms and bath houses “in order to be nude with father figures,” and “be subject to such ridicule as ‘faggots’ and ‘homos.’”
The suit claims “unconscionable commercial practices, deception, fraud, false pretenses, false promises, and misrepresentations.”
The suit is the latest salvo in a legal battle between proponents of “conversion therapy” and critics in government and the mental health profession. In October, California adopted a law that prohibits attempts to change the sexual orientation of clients under age 18. Practitioners of what they prefer to call “reparative therapy” are fighting the ban.
JONAH’s codirector, Arthur Goldberg, told NJJN he was “absolutely” prepared to fight the lawsuit. “It is without merit,” he said.
According to its website, JONAH was founded in 1998 by “two New Jersey Jewish couples whose adult children had become involved in homosexuality.”
Although its services are available on a nonsectarian basis, JONAH describes itself as a “pioneering organization in tackling this issue from a Jewish perspective.” Its website includes testimonials from rabbis, links to Orthodox perspectives on homosexuality, and a link to a book by Goldberg, Light in the Closet: Torah, Homosexuality, and the Power to Change. His biography lists him as a “board-certified professional counselor” and a “certified relationship specialist.”
Goldberg was originally trained as a lawyer and worked as an investor. A lengthy note on the website’s “history” page explains the circumstances behind the six-month sentence he served in a federal facility for fraudulent conduct in the structuring of municipal bond issues. The note explains that after his release he was “rehired by his previous employer and continued doing financial work.”
Responding to charges that JONAH’s methods of treatment were cruel and abusive, Goldberg said in a Dec. 3 phone interview, “Don’t believe everything you read in the complaint.”
While he would not specify numbers of people who have been treated successfully, he insisted that “the overwhelming majority that have gone through our program have been successfully treated.”
Asked whether he considered it wrong to be gay, Goldberg said, “If someone is happy being gay, that is their right to be gay. But if someone is unhappy, they have the right to know they have the ability to change. I believe most people can change.”
Levin, meanwhile, said the individual and group sessions he took part in for a year and a half were “definitely not effective.”
“It made it harder in the long run for me to come to accept myself. It caused emotional harm and depression,” he told NJJN in a Nov. 30 phone interview. “The treatment was very abusive. Telling someone you have to take off your clothes in front of a mirror in a room with a psychologist because that is what is required to become straight is not just abusive, it’s cruel.
“But when you are that young and come from a community that is insulated and you don’t know any gay people or have any gay role models, it is not uncommon for people to stick around JONAH and do whatever they can until they get to a point where they realize it’s not working,” he said. “It was definitely very painful and very embarrassing to try to eradicate a part of you by fighting against yourself.”
After the incident of being told to undress in front of a mirror as a counselor watched, Levin said, “I chose not to go back. It took me a few months after that to accept myself and find my community.”
A landmark “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community” — issued in 2010 and signed by dozens of Modern Orthodox rabbis — cast a skeptical eye on what it called “change therapies.”
“[W]hile some mental health professionals and rabbis in the community strongly believe in the efficacy of ‘change therapies,’ most of the mental health community, many rabbis, and most people with a homosexual orientation feel that some of these therapies are either ineffective or potentially damaging psychologically for many patients,” the statement read. “We affirm the religious right of those with a homosexual orientation to reject therapeutic approaches they reasonably see as useless or dangerous.”
Levin and his mother, Bella Levin, who paid for his sessions, are suing JONAH together.
So, too, are Benjamin Unger and his mother, Jo, also residents of Brooklyn.
“We found our plaintiffs’ experiences with JONAH to be compelling and even shocking in terms of the types of techniques and misrepresentations the defendants were luring these men into their programs with,” said Sam Wolfe, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The Montgomery, Ala., organization provides legal representation in a wide variety of civil rights cases.
“People are paying for these services under false pretenses. They are believing and trusting that these counselors know what they are doing, but in fact, they don’t,” he said.
Wolfe said SPLC chose to file suit in New Jersey against JONAH because the state’s Consumer Fraud Act “is one of the strongest consumer protection laws in the country.”
In addition to seeking triple monetary damages to cover the cost of “legitimate therapy” and attorneys’ fees, the attorney is also asking the Superior Court to “order JONAH to cease its unlawful activities and to revoke its business license.”
JONAH issued a news release vowing to “vigorously defend itself and gender-affirming processes from the baseless attack contained in the lawsuit.”
“The intent of this lawsuit is to totally deny individuals the freedom to seek help for their own unwanted same-sex attractions,” according to the release. “Whatever [the Southern Poverty Law Center’s] goals, this narrow-minded lawsuit runs directly contrary to true support for diversity and tolerance.”