Sides clash in ‘conversion therapy’ trial

Sides clash in ‘conversion therapy’ trial

Plaintiffs cite science, defendants note biblical bans on homosexuality

As he pointed to photographs of his clients, plaintiffs’ lawyer David Dinielli said JONAH officials warned them they were destined for “sad lonely lives” if they quit the program.
As he pointed to photographs of his clients, plaintiffs’ lawyer David Dinielli said JONAH officials warned them they were destined for “sad lonely lives” if they quit the program.

Two highly different views of homosexuality are being heard in Hudson County Superior Court in Jersey City, where four gay men and two of their mothers are suing a local Orthodox-based group that claims to help individuals conquer their homosexual desires.

The plaintiffs, three former Orthodox Jews and one Mormon, alleged that promises that JONAH’s leaders made about undoing their same-sex attractions failed, causing them misery and embarrassment.

The lawsuit is the latest court battle over so-called conversion therapy, a practice that gay rights groups are trying to ban in more than a dozen states. In 2013, Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation banning gay-to-straight conversion therapy for minors in New Jersey.

The plaintiffs are suing under a tough New Jersey statute against consumer fraud. They argue that the treatment methods used by JONAH’s counselors not only were ineffective, they also were painful, humiliating, and torturous.

The group, whose name is an acronym for Jews Offering New Alternatives for Homosexuality, a name it once used in full, marketed its services to young Orthodox men.

One plaintiff, a former Lubavitcher chasid named Chaim Levin, told the jury that at a weekend therapy session JONAH participants “reenacted a scene from my childhood abuse,” in which an older cousin demanded oral sex. Mr. Levin said that rabbis and JONAH representatives told him that the abuse had made him gay.

The plaintiffs — Mr. Levin, Benjamin Unger, Sheldon Bruck, and Michael Ferguson, as well as Mr. Levin’s and Mr. Bruck’s mothers, are represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization based in Montgomery, Ala.

In his opening argument on June 3, SPLC deputy legal director David Dinielli said that the plaintiffs “are gay, and were defrauded by a promise of spending money to turn them from gay to straight.” He said that those who dropped out of JONAH’s two- to four-year program were told they were destined for “sad, lonely lives,” with the possibility of depression, suicide, pedophilia, and dying of AIDS.

Charles LiMandri of the California-based Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund opened for the defense.

Mr. LiMandri argued that for most of the time they were involved with JONAH, the plaintiffs were pleased to be moving away from the same-sex attractions that brought them into conflict with their deep-seated beliefs and their lives as religious Jews.

In his testimony, Mr. Unger said that in 2007, when his parents enrolled him in JONAH, he had been a 19-year-old modern Orthodox Jew. He believed that his religious destiny included marrying a woman and fathering children. But when he started to develop same-sex attractions, “I began having stress,” which continued to grow and turn into depression while he was attending yeshivas in Brooklyn and Jerusalem, he testified.

Mr. Unger’s most emotional moments on the witness stand came when he told the jury that JONAH leaders suggested that his close relationship with his mother was a major cause of his homosexuality.

During group therapy sessions, he was instructed to put a pillow on the floor, imagine it to be his mother, and smash it repeatedly with a tennis racket.

Frequently wiping tears from his eyes, Mr. Unger told the jury how disturbed he felt at “going through all of this because of my mom…. I was horribly cold to her. She turned to me one day and said, ‘What did I do wrong?’ and I didn’t know how to answer. That was the lowest point in my relationship with my mom.”

Under cross-examination by Mr. LiMandri, Mr. Unger acknowledged that he wrote positive emails about JONAH on a listserv for participants in the program, but said he became increasingly disillusioned and depressed until he left JONAH after 11 months there.

Now, at 27, Mr. Unger said, he is no longer Orthodox, has a close relationship with his mother, works as a bartender, and fully accepts himself as a gay man.

On the trial’s second day, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, Lina Bensman, pointed out that Arthur Goldberg, JONAH’s co-director, was a disbarred attorney. He had headed a New York underwriting firm, and in 1989 he was incarcerated for six months on federal tax fraud and conspiracy charges.

Ms. Bensman asked why Mr. Goldberg occasionally had identified himself as a doctor, although he was not a physician and had not earned a Ph.D.

“I am a JD, a juris doctor,” Mr. Goldberg said. (New lawyers are granted the JD degree when they graduate from law school. It is not common for them to call themselves doctors, although it is not inaccurate for them to do so.)

Mr. Goldberg also acknowledged that he used the title “rabbi” on occasion, although he was not ordained.

“I was not a rabbi,” he said. “I have no formal religious training other than going to a yeshiva in grade school.

“I have never been a licensed counselor,” he added. “I give advice.”

But after being shown a signed document projected on a video screen, Mr. Goldberg acknowledged he had applied to the American Psychotherapy Association to become a certified relationship specialist and a certified professional counselor.

“But these certifications were revoked?” Ms. Bensman asked.

“Yes, ma’am” he replied.

“And the certifications read, ‘I certify I have not been convicted of a felony’?”

“That is correct,” he said.

Under questioning by his own attorney, Mr. Goldberg said he believed that his felony fraud and conspiracy convictions were essentially nullified more than 20 years after his guilty pleas in 1989, allowing him to check “no” on the application.

“Did you ever use these titles after they had withdrawn the certification?” his lawyer asked.

“I did not,” Mr. Goldberg said.

Mr. Goldberg described himself as an Orthodox Jew, and a former president of Congregation Mount Sinai in Jersey City.

His intention, he said, is “to help people achieve their personal goals…. We want to help people overcome their homosexual feelings in a Torah-true way.”

“What do you mean by a Torah-true way?” his attorney asked

“It means following the written Torah, which is the Five Books of Moses. We look at it from a religious belief system of what the Torah says,” he said.

Mr. Goldberg said he found the term “gay conversion therapy” a “particularly obnoxious phrase.

“In all the history of Judaism we were forced to convert many times,” he said. “I believe in free choice. God has given us free choice. If people are happy being gay, I’ll use a Yiddish phrase: ‘Gei gezunterheit’ — ‘Go and be happy.’”

On June 11, the former president of the American Psychiatric Association testified that “generally, it is unethical to engage in gay conversion and reparative therapies because of the potential of harm to patients.

“Any treatment that is based on the assumption that homosexuality is a mental disorder or is based on the assumption that the patient should change his or her sexual orientation is by its nature unethical,” Dr. Carol Bernstein said.

She said that traumatic re-enactments, along with the use of nudity, blindfolding, and shouting obscenities, could harm patients, and its use by APA members “and would be grounds for expulsion” from the professional association.

The next day, an unlicensed life coach who said he treated hundreds of JONAH’s Orthodox clients defended his methods, although Dr. Bernstein branded them as “unethical.”

“Why does the therapy include being naked with other men?” one of the plaintiff’s attorneys, James Bromley, asked Alan Downing.

Mr. Downing, the life coach, a Mormon with a bachelor’s degree in musical theatre, replied, “to overcome bodily shame.”

Downing said that blindfolding and shouting obscenities were helpful tools to “trigger old memories and experiences” connected with clients’ same-sex attractions.

Elaine Berk, a cofounder of JONAH and supervisor of its email and website components, told the jury last Friday that she had a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Rutgers University but had no formal training in psychology, biology, neurology, or genetics, although she has written extensively about the science of homosexuality.

She said she founded JONAH after her son, “who was about 16 or 17 at the time, started changing his habits, his dress, and who his friends were.” She said it made her “hysterical most of the time.”

Convinced that her son was “not born gay,” Ms. Berk located secular and Christian organizations that offered help in changing men’s same-sex attractions, but she found no such Jewish groups.

She said that a Protestant minister offered to help “Judaicize” his Christian theology so it would be relevant to Jews who sought such treatment.

Ms. Berk acknowledged using the term “gay deathstyle,” and said “the statistics prove that homosexuality is a very dangerous lifestyle.”

She likened same-sex attractions to “other disorders and/or addictions and/or problems of obesity, alcoholism, gambling, etc.,” adding that “the Torah does not believe that anyone is born gay. It believes we are all born males and females who grow up into men and women, and anybody can feel a same-sex attraction, but you are prohibited from acting on it.”

As of press time, the plaintiffs planned to wrap up their case with testimony from Michael Ferguson, a Mormon who also alleges mistreatment at the hands of JONAH and its affiliated counselors.

The defense is expected to call witnesses, including leaders of marathon weekend therapy sessions aimed at helping men overcome their same sex attractions.

A JONAH-connected counselor who worked with plaintiff Sheldon Bruck and the wife of a so-called “ex-gay” man also are scheduled to testify.

Mr. LiMandri said that his organization sees the JONAH case as being about religious liberty. “Individuals with same-sex attraction have a right to seek counseling to live their lives as they choose,” Mr. LiMandri told an interviewer earlier this year. “It is a matter of self-determination.”

The defense is planning to introduce live and video testimony from JONAH clients they tell their “success stories” about overcoming their homosexual attractions.

The trial is expected to continue for another week.

Reprinted from the New Jersey Jewish News

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