For decades, Orthodox LGBT Jews faced a difficult choice: Stifle their sexual identity or leave their religious community.
Rachael Fried, who describes herself as a queer Orthodox Jew, hoped she could stifle the feelings.
“I did think for a long time that I could find a gay man to marry so I could just fit into the community,” said Fried, who lives in New York. “I so badly felt that this is my community and I want to be a part of it, and that was the only way I saw myself as being able to be a part of it.”
Others, such as Chaim Levin, a gay 25-year-old from Brooklyn, turned to conversion therapy in hopes of conforming to Orthodox expectations.
Levin is one of six plaintiffs — four former clients and two parents — suing JONAH, or Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, over the emotional and psychological harm they say was caused by conversion therapy. Opening arguments in Hudson County, N.J., Superior Court began Wednesday (June 3).
In the lawsuit, Levin and other members of the Orthodox community describe being asked to undress and touch themselves in their therapists’ presence and beating effigies of their mother with a tennis racket. The plaintiffs are asking the court to determine whether conversion therapy, which is illegal for minors in New Jersey, is a form of consumer fraud.
But while the lawsuit is being argued, the cultural and scientific awareness within the community has changed in the last five years. Many Orthodox rabbis have already begun to alter their attitudes toward homosexuality and conversion therapy.
To be sure, some ultra-Orthodox rabbis deny the possibility of a homosexual identity altogether. Those who hold this view believe that according to the Torah, homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle or a legitimate identity.
Proponents of this view include Arthur Goldberg, JONAH’S co-director, who says “same-sex attraction can be modified and healed.”
But a segment of the Orthodox wing allows for the possibility of a gay identity, even as it condemns gay marriage. These rabbis say gays and lesbians are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
“The culture is changing so rapidly,” said Dr. Alison Feit, director of New York’s Jewish Center for Trauma and Recovery. “What we knew about gender is changing.”
Modern Orthodox Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot publicly revised his stance on conversion therapy at a conference on sexual orientation earlier this year: “Today we would’ve sharpened our approach to it,” he said. “The psychology community has proven the negative effects.”
Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbinical group in the U.S., went further. Citing the damage conversion therapy can inflict, he said: “In this one rabbi’s opinion … it’s wrong, and it’s not something that should be done.”
In 2012, Dratch was responsible for pulling the RCA’s online endorsement of JONAH.
During the last decade, organizations and social groups such as Eshel and Jewish Queer Youth have arisen to help LGBT Jews reconcile their religious identity with their sexual identity. JQY was involved in the effort to get the RCA to remove its online endorsement of JONAH.
Fried, the 28-year-old queer Orthodox Jew who is now co-director of women’s programming at JQY, said the community still views LGBT people as less than ideal.
Though she herself never participated in conversion therapy, Fried said that had she come out earlier than at age 22, “I don’t know what I would’ve done.
“Nobody wants to feel like a second-class citizen,” she said.
Meanwhile, JONAH is still functioning out of its Jersey City office, and ultra-Orthodox rabbis are still sending referrals.