The founder of a support group for gay Orthodox youth participated last weekend in a conference hosted by the community’s association of mental health professionals, signaling a shift in Orthodox attitudes towards homosexuality even as two anti-gay petitions have surfaced on the Internet.
Mordechai Levovitz, the founder of JQYouth, attended Nefesh International’s annual conference from Dec. 1-4 in Hauppauge, L.I., the only such advocate ever to do so, said Nefesh’s president, Simcha Feuerman. He attended as an individual, however, rather than a representative of his group.
In past years, the only organization dealing with homosexuality present at the conference was JONAH, a New Jersey-based nonprofit group offering therapy that promises to help clients stop being gay. That form of therapy has engendered much controversy and criticism that it does not work.
“The shift is already taking place,” said Levovitz, who was raised in an ultra-Orthodox family, attended medical school and now supports himself by working in real estate while helping to run JQY, which he founded ten years ago. “It’s amazing how many therapists came up to me and told me that they’re thinking about changing their model.”
Levovitz, 32, encountered hostility and revulsion from some attendees.
He was able to participate at all only because told Feuerman that he personally believes that there are homosexual behaviors that are halachically prohibited. Three other JQY members also attended the conference.
“Our organization is Orthodox and abides by halacha,” said Feuerman, who is also a marriage and family therapist. “We cannot support any organization or individual that advocates or normalizes homosexual behavior.” Nefesh was unable to sufficiently vet JQY, however, and so could not permit Levovitz to represent the group.
Still, Levovitz said, his presence and a warm reception from many attendees indicates that some Orthodox mental health workers are beginning to reject so-called reparative therapy and the notion that homosexuality is a disease that can be cured.
JONAH was not at the conference this year, but Feuerman would not explain why. JONAH’s president, Arthur Goldberg, could not be reached for comment.
Levovitz’s involvement in the conference comes just a few weeks after a document entitled “Torah Declaration, re: The Torah Stance on Homosexuality” appeared on the Internet appended to a Huffington Post column by Jayson Littman. The author was raised Orthodox and had previously described his struggles with “reparative” therapy in an article published by the website.
He wrote a follow-up article to reveal that in some Orthodox communities, rabbis were circulating and signing a petition stating that, when approached by someone who says he is gay or attracted to men, rabbis should respond: “The only viable course of action that is consistent with the Torah is therapy and teshuvah.”
Littman told The Jewish Week that a rabbi with a congregation in the Northeast that he knew when he was in therapy but had been out of contact with sent him the declaration after reading his article on the Huffington Post. The rabbi did not want to come forward, however.
The declaration, Littman wrote, emerged out of the backlash that greeted the 2010 Statement of Principles signed by Modern Orthodox rabbis that — while affirming the halachic prohibition of same-sex intercourse — welcomed gays and lesbians in the community.
Many of the therapists Levovitz met at the Nefesh conference are already abandoning models like reparative therapy, either because they know it doesn’t work or because they are younger and are more moderate about homosexuality than older practitioners.
“There’s a generational change,” he said. “The therapists who are in their 30s, they have a very different approach.”
Other signs of change around the issue of homosexuality in the Orthodox world include the creation of other organizations with missions similar to that of JQY, such as Eshel, which holds Shabbat events and works to build understanding of lesbians and gays in the Orthodox world, and the Gay & Lesbian Yeshiva Day School Alumni Association.
“Yes, it’s possible to be gay and frum,” proclaims the association’s website.
A member of JQY isn’t as optimistic, however.
“I know there’s a big movement to integrate gay people into the Orthodox community. In my humble opinion, I don’t think it’s possible,” said Benjamin Ungar, 24. Borough Park-raised, Ungar was expelled from his yeshiva when he quit therapy at JONAH after deciding it wasn’t working.
In 2000, the American Psychiatric Association issued a position statement opposing “reparative” or “conversion” therapy based on the assumption that a patient should change a homosexual orientation.
Levovitz received contact information from about 75 conference attendees who said they are eager to be in touch and to learn more from him. He plans to hold more panel discussions, along the lines of some he has already hosted in which gays and lesbians who were raised Orthodox tell their stories and take questions from an audience of therapists.
JQY’s official nonprofit status is pending, and member donations fund its current activities, including such panels and support group meetings.
The group is seeking funding to hold a two-day training session for Orthodox therapists, he said.