When Ben Unger was growing up in Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn, he thought he knew exactly how his life would unfold. He would live in the same neighborhood as his parents and grandparents, worship in the same synagogue, become a husband and father and uphold an age-old way of life. But by the time Unger was 19, that future was looking precarious: after years trying to dismiss his attractions to other boys, he finally faced up to being gay.
Coming out isn't easy for almost any young gay man, but for Orthodox Jews like Unger, the challenges are even greater. Unger's parents were surprisingly supportive of him, but he knew his tight-knit conservative community—characterized by modesty codes, extreme conformity, and a lack of sex education—would not be. Orthodox Jews believe homosexuality is outlawed by the Torah—the blueprint by which they live their lives. As Leviticus 18:22 puts it, "If a man also lies with a man as he lies with a woman," the punishment is death. In America today, a gay man may not be stoned to death, but in communities like Unger’s, he could be cast out.
"I loved my community. I loved living where I did. I loved my family," Unger, 25, said in a recent interview. He could see no place for himself in that insular world if he lived as an openly gay man. "I had to figure out what to do."
On the advice of a rabbi, Unger went for therapy to “cure” his homosexuality. Twice a week for nearly a year, he traveled across the river to New Jersey for “reparative therapy” treatment at JONAH—or Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing—a group that claims to help Orthodox Jews eliminate their same-sex attraction. When he signed up with JONAH, Unger was confused, desperate, and vulnerable. When he finally walked away, he was close to suicide.
As a gay Orthodox Jew, Unger was facing the core paradox of his religion’s approach to homosexuality. Devout Jews are told to seek love, find companionship, and express compassion—all values seemingly at odds with harsh condemnation of gays and lesbians. For some time, reparative therapy has offered men like Unger a compelling theological fix: if same-sex attractions can be cured, then “homosexuality” does not exist, and presto—the problem vanishes.
On a practical level as well, JONAH—with its monopoly on reparative therapy in the Orthodox world—has provided an invaluable resource to the rabbis who are unsure of how to counsel young gay men seeking their help. JONAH representatives declined to comment for this article, but on the group’s website, JONAH’s director, Arthur Goldberg, states that "homosexuality is a learned behavior, which can be unlearned."
In recent years, however, this premise has begun to give way. Reparative therapy— also known as sexual reorientation or conversion therapy—has been under attack both from without and within the Orthodox world.
Last April, Robert Spitzer, a respected psychiatrist and longtime contributor to the DSM, the American Psychiatric Association's manual of mental disorders, publicly apologized for a study he had conducted in 2001 concluding that reparative therapy worked.
In May, the World Health Organization condemned reparative therapy as "a serious threat to the health and well-being of affected people," and in September, California banned its use in the treatment of gay and lesbian teens. Even Alan Chambers, president of Exodus, a Christian ex-gay group, has said he believes it is impossible to change someone's sexual orientation.
With every mainstream psychological body rejecting the idea that homosexuality is a disorder and finding efforts to "treat" it as unethical, those who still practice reparative therapy, such as JONAH, do so on the unregulated fringes of the profession.
But that may soon change, following a consumer-fraud lawsuit Unger and three other young men filed against JONAH on Tuesday in New Jersey state court.
Sam Wolfe, an attorney with Southern Poverty Law Center, which filed the suit, said he hoped the case would "get across in a powerful way that reparative therapy damages and sometimes destroys people's lives."
Because it is the first suit to put reparative therapy on trial, gay Orthodox advocates say, a favorable ruling could also push rabbis and their congregations further toward acceptance of lesbians and gay men.
Unger attended his first JONAH session in the summer of 2007. At that session, he said, Goldberg described the misery Unger would face as a gay man. Studies proved, Goldberg told him, that homosexuality was linked to alarmingly high rates of depression and suicide, drug and alcohol addiction, sexually transmitted diseases, and even pedophilia.
"He was telling me it's a horrible, horrible existence and I didn't need to be that way. I wasn't born that way," Unger said, adding that Goldberg told him not to think of himself as a gay man but as a straight man with unwanted same-sex attractions.
"His words were, ‘Gay to straight is possible. Between two to four years, you will be totally attracted to women and not men.’ And that was like total candy to me.”
Although JONAH's approach is framed by Jewish religious law, it is unlike its Christian counterparts in that it doesn't offer to “pray away the gay." Instead, JONAH draws on the psychological ideas of Richard Cohen—a therapist and founder of the International Healing Foundation, as well as something of a guru for “ex-gay" groups like JONAH. However, Cohen's central belief about homosexuality—that it stems from an overattachment to the mother, a lack of connection to the father, and unresolved childhood trauma—is not supported by scientific studies, and Cohen himself is no longer a member of the American Counseling Association, having been expelled in 2002 for ethics violations.
Cohen did not respond to requests for comment, but an IHF employee pointed to the organization’s website, which states that Cohen adheres to the ethical guidelines of the U.S. Association for Body Psychotherapy and has "a tremendous success rate helping men and women with unwanted same-sex attraction (SSA) fulfill their heterosexual potential, and parents reconcile with their SSA children." The ACA declined to discuss the circumstances surrounding Cohen’s expulsion, but the IHF site claims it was in connection with a patient who was allowed to do voluntary work for the organization.
During Unger's sessions with Alan Downing, a “life coach” and one of JONAH's associated counselors, he was told variously to go to the ritual bath to bond with his father while naked, to join a gym and work out, and to analyze his attractions to other men in terms of past losses. For instance, if the man he desired was blond, had he been rejected as a child by a blond friend?
Unger was also given Cohen's signature “touch therapy.” He was sent to a darkened room to be cuddled by another man while gentle music played. "They would tell us if we were man enough, we wouldn't be gay," Unger said. But even though he found it unsettling to be held in a fetal position by a man he didn’t know, Unger felt obliged to take part, since he'd been told the success of the therapy relied on his complete trust in the process.
Perhaps more disturbing was an exercise to sever what Downing said was Unger’s overattachment to his mother. "I just went with it because they said they knew what they're doing,” Unger recalled. “They told me they were professionals and these are the proven methods that they use."
In the exercise, Downing put a pillow on the floor and told Unger to imagine it was his mother and then beat it with a tennis racket. While Downing and the other men in his group cheered him on, Unger beat the pillow so furiously his hands bled. Soon after, Unger cut his mother out of his life. "She's a loving, caring, great mother, and I just stopped talking to her. She would call and say, ‘What did I do wrong?’ and I couldn't explain. I was like a zombie repeating what they were saying: ‘It's my mother, it's my mother, it's my mother. Detach, detach, detach.’"
Reached by phone, Downing hung up when asked to comment on the plaintiffs’ description of his techniques.
JONAH’s tactics aren’t the only element of the organization to come under increased scrutiny. In February 2010 a joint investigation by the South Florida Gay News and Truth Wins Out, a gay advocacy group, revealed that Arthur Goldberg, who had been a Wall Street investor before founding JONAH, had pleaded guilty in 1989 to municipal-bond fraud in connection with a fictitious housing scheme, and was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison. After his release, he cofounded JONAH with Elaine Silodor Berk, a New Jersey woman who, like Goldberg, has a gay son, and has been associated with groups for parents of gay children.
Neither director responded to requests for comment.
The debate over the status of homosexuality in Judaism has intensified in the past few years within the religion as well. The summer after the report on Goldberg, a group of Orthodox rabbis drafted a statement of principles reiterating the taboo against same-sex intercourse, but acknowledging the contradictions in religious law, and calling for dignity, respect, and community acceptance to be extended to all human beings, including those who are openly gay.
The statement did not explicitly refer to JONAH, but in a not-so-subtle dig at the group, it affirmed "the religious right of those with a homosexual orientation to reject therapeutic approaches they reasonably see as useless or dangerous."
While more than 200 rabbis have signed the statement, its perspective remains far from universal. Months after its release, another document began circulating among more conservative rabbis. The Torah Declaration, as it is known, also boasts more than 200 rabbinical signatories, including revered figures such as Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, and takes a far harsher line. Homosexuality must be curable, it argues, since the Torah would not forbid something which is impossible to avoid. The Torah Declaration also claims that the Torah doesn't merely sanction reparative therapy—it mandates it.
According to Jay Michaelson, the author of “God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality,” the idea that the Torah condemns homosexuality is based on the mistranslation of the Hebrew word toevah as "abomination" rather than as "taboo." Even then, he said, it's only anal sex between men that is outlawed, not homosexuality as an identity.
If the senior rabbis had the will, Michaelson said, they could reinterpret the Torah and modify Halakhic, or religious, law. That process is glacially slow—Orthodox rabbis have struggled for half a century, for instance, with a loophole in Jewish law that allows men to effectively hold their wives hostage and not grant them a divorce.
But for young men in the process of coming out as gay, what matters more than doctrine is their day-to-day treatment by their families, friends, and neighbors. Michaelson believes the SPLC suit could do much to show the rabbis that reparative therapy —which he terms "the last refuge of bad theology"—is pointless, ineffectual, and at odds with what he says are the greater values in his community: joy, compassion, and support.
"The emperor will be revealed to have no clothes," Michaelson said. "For moderates it could be the last straw. Then, step by step, we can build a world where there isn't such rupture when kids come out."
(The moderate Rabbinical Council of America has already tentatively shifted its position: it no longer endorses JONAH or reparative therapy but has stopped short of outright condemnation.)
Susan Rosenbluth, the publisher of the Jewish Voice and Opinion and spokeswoman for the organizers of the Torah Declaration, said the declaration was initiated by a group of “successful” ex-gays and their families who felt their voices were being ignored.
"To be part of the Orthodox community, there is a certain lifestyle that is expected," she said. "Would we say, ‘Oh, please, would you and your boyfriend come over for Shabbos tea?’ Probably not." But neither would somebody who went shopping in their car every Saturday morning be welcomed. "You wouldn't be part of the Orthodox community. Why would you want to be? You have chosen to live in a way that is not in consistency with that community."
If someone wants to try reparative therapy to help them live according to the rules, Rosenbluth said, they should have the right. "Nobody is standing on a street corner and yelling, ‘Sinner repent!’ What they are saying is: We are here, it worked for us. We are living lives in consonance with the Torah, and it can be done."
Rosenbluth said she was unable to persuade any of the roughly two dozen members of this group to agree to be interviewed.
That doesn’t surprise Unger, who says that even though JONAH workers told him of plenty of “success stories”—hundreds and hundreds, by his recollection—he's never met a single man who was “cured” of his homosexuality. He has, however, met plenty of married men who've confessed to the struggles they face simply to make love to their wives.
Today, Unger has swapped his religious community for the LGBT community, and says he now feels accepted for who he is. Still, the techniques he learned to suppress his attraction to other men have left him with an unshakable guilt—and, he says, a barrier to real intimacy. He also fears for the young Orthodox men in turmoil who will continue to be drawn in by what he sees as the false promises of reparative therapy.
"Just because people want to change," Unger says, "that doesn't give you the right to say they can change based on lies."