Three years after their controversial conversion therapy program was shut down by a court settlement, the founders of JONAH may have to go back to court.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, along with two other firms representing victims of JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality), filed a motion on Wednesday asking a Hudson County, N.J., judge to enforce a permanent injunction against the organization formerly known as JONAH as well as its founders, Arthur Goldberg and Elaine Berk, for continuing operations under the name of a different organization.
The SPLC alleges that JONAH’s founders started a new nonprofit, called The Jewish Institute For Global Awareness (JIFGA), just 11 days after the permanent injunction was ordered and continued offering its services under the new name.
In the original case that shut JONAH down in 2015, the jury ruled that JONAH’s claims of “curing” patients of homosexual tendencies violated the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act. The suit resulted in a settlement in which JONAH paid $72,400 to the plaintiffs to compensate for fees paid to JONAH for its services as well as a portion of the plaintiff’s legal fees. The settlement required that JONAH and its founders cease to offer conversion therapy in New Jersey. If they violated those terms, they would become liable for the full sum of $3.5 million in legal fees.
But according to the SPLC, JONAH’s founders continued operation at the same location and using the same phone number under its new name, JIFGA. According to a description on the nonprofit’s website, The Jewish Institute For Global Awareness (JIFGA) is “rooted in Biblical principles and expresses a Biblical world-view,” but there is no mention of conversion therapy.
“When we settled the case, we settled because JONAH promised that it was going to cease its operations entirely,” David Dinielli, one of the SPLC lawyers working on the case, told The Jewish Week. “We’ve learned since then that is hasn’t, so we are seeking an order enforcing the injunction, extending it against this other entity called JIFGA.”
“What the evidence that we’ve submitted suggests is that there were JONAH counselors who were performing counseling and just continued doing that counseling, and the new JIFGA is simply processing payments related to those services,” Dinielli continues.
“JONAH simply transferred its assets to JIFGA; JIFGA has the same core members, it inherited the assets, and it continues to exist,” said Dinielli. “So our argument is that essentially whatever JIFGA is doing, it is doing simply as a ruse to get around the fact that JONAH was ordered to shut.”
Calls to JIFGA for comment were not returned.
Conversion therapy, which attempts to make a gay person straight, is widely considered ineffective and likely harmful by medical and mental health associations including the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association.
JONAH had employed Alan Downing as a counselor, although he had no degree or licensing in a mental health field. Among other questionable practices, Downing apparently encouraged JONAH’s clients to dance in the woods together while naked. JONAH was endorsed by Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, dean of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia. In 2004, the Rabbinical Council of America endorsed JONAH’s services.
In February 2015, New Jersey passed legislation that would revoke the license of any mental health professionals practicing conversion therapy on anyone under age 18. The bill does not ban conversion therapy for adults.