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, the only such advocate ever to do so.
Mordechai Levovitz, the founder of JQYouth, attended Nefesh International’s annual conference from Dec. 1-4 in Hauppauge, L.I., said Nefesh’s president, Simcha Feuerman. He attended as an individual, however, rather than a representative of his group.
Levovitz and other advocates for gay Orthodox Jews say his participation signals a powerful moment of ferment in the haredi world regarding attitudes toward homosexuality. Even as the rank and file are becoming more accepting of or at least aware of gays in the community, a backlash is emerging among the leadership, where two anti-gay petitions are circulating.
“I had a therapist coming up to me with full payes [earlocks],” said Levovitz, who was raised in a fervently Orthodox family, attended medical school and now supports himself by working in real estate while helping to run JQY. “It’s amazing how you can’t judge a book by its cover.”
JQY was founded a decade ago and other groups with similar missions, such as the Gay and Lesbian Yeshiva Day School Alumni Association, have existed for at least as long. Only recently, however, have groups with a support mission also begun to try to create change in the communities where they grew up. In 2010, activists founded Eshel, which attepts to “to build understanding and support for lesbians and gays in traditional communities.”
About 22 percent, or 528,000 of the some 2.4 million American Jews who attend synagogue identify as Orthodox according to the latest demographic data available in the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey. The community’s ultra-Orthodox segment tends to command attention due to members’ old-world appearance and increasingly stringent religious practices.
Until this year, the only organization dealing with homosexuality present at the Nefesh conference was JONAH, a New Jersey-based nonprofit offering therapy aimed at helping clients stop being gay. That form of therapy, called “reparative” or “conversion” therapy, has generated controversy amid criticism that it does not work and assumes homosexuality is a mental disorder. This summer, presidential candidate Michele Bachmann had to defend her husband against accusations that he offers such therapy.
It is, however, central to one of the petitions rabbis are disseminating among themselves, which states that a rabbi, if approached by someone who says he is gay or attracted to men, should tell that person to repent and seek “reparative” therapy.
That petition, entitled “Torah Declaration, re: The Torah Stance on Homosexuality” appeared on the Internet appended to a Huffington Post column by Jayson Littman. Littman was raised Orthodox and had previously described his struggles with “reparative” therapy in an article published by the website.
The other petition, published in The Algemeiner with more than 100 signatures attached, condemns a same-sex marriage ceremony conducted by Rabbi Steve Greenberg, who is openly gay. (See Rabbi Greenberg’s Opinion piece on page 23.)
“The rabbis’ hands must be getting tired from signing so many petitions, ” said Littman. “I’m excited that they’re at least talking about the subject.”
Littman, 34, told The Jewish Week that a rabbi with a congregation in the Northeast that he knew when he was in therapy sent him the declaration just before Thanksgiving, after reading his original Huffington Post article.
The declaration urging reparative therapy, Littman wrote, seems to have emerged in response to 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.
Indeed, Levovitz, 32, encountered some hostility and revulsion at the Nefesh conference. And 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 had insufficient time to 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 should be cured.
Nonetheless, the persistence of reparative therapy as practiced by JONAH in the Orthodox world is a serious problem, Levovitz said. Not all of its therapists are licensed and therapeutic practices have included nakedness and genital touching, practices that have scarred and traumatized JQY members, he said.
Chaim Levin, raised Chabad, complied when his JONAH therapist asked him to touch himself during a session and then quit the therapy.
“I just didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I was in the most compromising situation possible and he said, ‘Just do it.’” Now 22, Levin works in human resources at a property management company and has an active social life, including dating and is “just as Jewish as he is gay.”
Levin’s therapist, Alan Downing, declined to comment.
On very rare occasions, for those suffering from “severe body image issues,” a JONAH therapist may have asked a client to undress, but only with three people present in the room, said the group’s founder, Arthur Goldberg.
“As far as I’m aware,” a JONAH therapist has never asked a client to touch himself during a session, he said. Levin said there were no witnesses in the room with him and Downing and that the door was locked.
Downing, who as a “life coach” does not have a license, has helped many people, Goldberg said, but they do not want to make their struggles public. He said the demands of client confidentiality put his organization at a disadvantage in defending itself against these accusations.
JONAH was not at the conference this year, but Feuerman would not explain why. Goldberg said he had another engagement.
But Levovitz said many of the therapists he met at the Nefesh conference are already abandoning models like reparative therapy altogether, either because they believe it doesn’t work or because they are younger and are more comfortable with homosexuality than older practitioners.
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.
“There’s a generational change,” Levovitz said. “The therapists who are in their 30s, they have a very different approach.”
Ungar acknowledges that his own decision to come out has made his friends and family more tolerant of homosexuality but doubts rabbis will have the same reaction.
“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,” he said.
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.