Jersey City, N.J. — The only time Benjamin “Benji” Unger lost his composure on the stand was when recounting how he stopped talking to his mother for several months after his gay conversion therapist suggested that his closeness with his mother was a root cause for his homosexuality.
Only 19 at the time, Unger, a Borough Park native, started seeing a conversion therapist when he told his parents that he was attracted to men. His father directed him to the only resource he knew: a conversion therapy nonprofit JONAH, Jews Offering New Alternatives to Healing.
In his first phone call with JONAH co-director Arthur Goldberg, Unger recalls Goldberg saying that one-third of JONAH clients are healed completely of their homosexuality, and another third sees a decline in same-sex attraction. “He said he helped hundreds,” recalled Unger. Unger was eager to sign up so that he could fit back into the community that raised him.
Over the next year, Unger endured what some would consider bizarre and often damaging treatments — including beating an effigy of his mother until his hands were raw — in hopes that he would become straight, just as he remembers Goldberg promising him.
In a landmark trial now in its second week in a Hudson County state court here, Unger, who is now 27, and three other former clients of the gay conversion therapy organization, and two of their mothers, are claiming that JONAH breached New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act by claiming that JONAH could “cure” their sexual orientation in a specific amount of time with a specific success rate. The suit names JONAH, its two co-directors, and counselor Alan Downing.
From a consumer fraud angle, the plaintiff’s attorney, David Dinielli, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy organization specializing in civil rights litigation, presented a simple argument during last week’s opening statements: “My clients needed help, but JONAH lied and JONAH made it worse.”
In the community where Ungar grew up, “there were no gay people,” Dinielli said. “In Benji’s world, it didn’t make sense. He didn’t know how he was going to live unless he could get married.”
The plaintiffs charged JONAH with six counts of consumer fraud, including that the organization claimed homosexuality is a disorder and that the program is based on science. They also argue that JONAH provided specific statistics for success rates and a time period in which clients could be “healed” — two to four years.
But JONAH’s legal team, led by Charles LiMandri, president of the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, a legal advocacy nonprofit with a mission to “defend religious freedom,” argued “JONAH has a right to their beliefs.” The defense also argues that none of the plaintiffs actually stayed for the full length of the program, and as such, it is difficult for them to claim that the treatment didn’t work.
The case playing out here puts a spotlight on the painful situation of gay and lesbian Jews in the Orthodox community, which traditionally prohibits homosexuality. For decades Orthodox LGBT Jews who wished to remain in their community faced an identity-tearing choice: they could either leave their religious community to lead openly gay lives, or they would have to stifle their sexuality.
Some, like Unger, went to conversion therapy to “cure” their homosexuality so that they could fit into the community. But in recent years, opinion about such therapy has undergone a change. In fact, New Jersey banned the practice for minors in 2013 and it has run into some resistance in the Jewish community as well.
From a national standpoint, the ruling from this civil suit, initially filed in 2012, could extend far beyond New Jersey and the Jewish community. If the plaintiffs can convince the jury that conversion therapy is a violation of consumer law, the ruling could have widespread implications.
The suit, in fact, already made national waves in February when Superior Court Judge Peter Bariso was the first judge to rule that the defense couldn’t call homosexuality a disorder. He ruled that it is scientifically inaccurate much “like the notion that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it.”
On Monday, this line of inquiry came to a head in a new form: Goldberg testified that when he called homosexuality a disorder, he didn’t refer to a mental illness, but rather “a spiritual disorder.” He attributed his belief in JONAH’s ability to “heal” someone of homosexuality to the Torah’s statement that “God gives us free will so we can act upon that free will.”
The wider fight for acceptance of gay and lesbian Jews in the Orthodox community is playing out in the debate over conversion, or reparative therapy.
In 2010, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, posted a “Statement of Principles,” arguing that while Jewish law prohibits homosexual acts and condemns gay marriage, it does not prohibit homosexual feelings. Accordingly, the Orthodox community should welcome people who identify as gay and lesbian — and their children — as full members of the community. It takes a skeptical view of conversion therapy and affirms the right of people “to reject therapeutic approaches the reasonably see as useless or dangerous.” By 2012, nearly 220 Orthodox rabbis and community leaders had signed it.
The response was “The Torah Declaration,” created the same year. Signed by 223 rabbis, community leaders and mental health professionals ranging from charedi to Modern Orthodox, including JONAH’s Goldberg, it argues that “homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle or a legitimate identity” under Jewish law and that “same-sex attraction can be modified and healed.”
Since those two documents were written, cultural and scientific views on homosexuality and reparative therapy have changed. Dr. Alison Feit, director of New York City’s Trauma and Recovery Center, asked “If you accept standard research, then where does that put the religious obligation?” And that question is plaguing many modern rabbis, who both accept scientific findings and rabbinic traditions.
These rabbis are faced with an even more nuanced question beyond whether is it possible to be Orthodox and gay, which is: if there’s a way to change sexuality, should that be the religious ideal? Or should man live in the image in which God made him?
This debate has led some rabbis to re-evaluate the legitimacy of conversion therapy.
Rabbi Helfgot publicly revised his stance on conversion therapy at a conference on sexual orientation in the Orthodox community earlier this year: “We gave an even-handed presentation about reparative therapy. Today we would’ve sharpened our approach to it … the psychology community has proven the negative effects.”
Rabbi Mark Dratch, the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox rabbinical association, furthered Helfgot’s opposition to conversion therapy. He said at the April 19 conference, entitled “Desire, Faith and Therapy,” that because of the damage conversion therapy can inflict, “in this one rabbi’s opinion … it’s wrong and it’s not something that should be done.”
Despite the slow but steady shift in Jewish views on conversion therapy, New Jersey’s 2013 law outlawing it for minors, and the lawsuit, JONAH is still functioning out of its Jersey City office.