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Day 6: JONAH witnesses defend ‘gay conversion’
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Day 6: JONAH witnesses defend ‘gay conversion’

A Mormon ‘life coach’ says Orthodox Jews come to him for help

An unlicensed life coach who said he treated hundreds of Orthodox Jewish men troubled by their homosexual feelings defended treatment methods of a group that promises to help some men “grow out of homosexuality.”

Alan Downing, a Mormon with a bachelor’s degree in musical theater, testified June 12 as a hostile witness in a consumer fraud lawsuit filed by former clients of JONAH, a Jewish-affiliated organization that offers what some have termed “conversion therapy.”

Plaintiffs allege the organization — originally named Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing — engaged in “unconscionable commercial practice” by claiming that same-sex attractions can be reduced or eliminated through therapy.

Downing, who described himself as “a bisexual” who has never had sexual relations with men, has treated clients referred from JONAH since 2007, he said.

He told the jury he has worked with gay men — Jewish and non-Jewish — since 2007, treating them in private, group, and marathon sessions.

His testimony challenged that of the day before by Dr. Carol Bernstein, the former president of the American Psychiatric Association, who told the Jersey City jury that “generally, it is unethical to engage in gay conversion and reparative therapies because of the potential of harm to patients.”

Among the methods he defended were ones Bernstein said would “most certainly” lead to disciplinary action or dismissal from the APA.

They included urging clients to remove all of their clothes, sometimes in one-on-one sessions, sometimes in groups.

“Why does the therapy include being naked with other men?” asked plaintiffs’ attorney James Bromley.

“To overcome bodily shame,” Downing replied.

Other methods involved tying two men together with duct tape or tethering one to a pole during weekends of intensive group therapy and psychodrama. Downing said such methods would distract them from “dwelling on painful moments in their past.”

During questioning by his own attorney, Charles LiMandri, Downing said no one was ever restrained against his will, “and if someone felt threatened, there is a magic word, ‘safe,’ and all the action stops.”

Asked about the technique of slamming a pillow with a tennis racket while pretending the pillow is the client’s mother, he said it “is a way of getting free of the pain that you’re blocking.”

LiMandri is president and chief counsel of the California-based Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, a public interest group that takes cases consistent with its “family values” philosophy.

Earlier another defendant, Elaine Berk, a cofounder of JONAH and supervisor of its e-mail and website components, told the jury she had a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Rutgers University but had no formal training in psychology, biology, neurology, or genetics, although she has written extensively about the science of homosexuality.

She said she founded JONAH after her son, “who was about 16 or 17 at the time, started changing his habits, his dress, and who his friends were.” She said she was “hysterical most of the time.”

Convinced the her son was “not born gay,” she discovered secular and Christian but no Jewish organizations that offered help in changing men’s same-sex attractions.

She said a Protestant minister offered to help “Judaicize” his Christian theology so it would be relevant to Jews who sought such treatment.

She acknowledged using the term “gay deathstyle,” and said “the statistics prove that homosexuality is a very dangerous lifestyle.”

Questioned by LiMandri about her use of the Hebrew word teshuva, or repentance, in her writing, Berk said it was “a gift that God gave the Jewish people. Other groups follow the Torah’s moral rules and it’s a process of repentance.”

She likened same-sex attractions to “other disorders and/or addictions and/or problems of obesity, alcoholism, gambling, etc.,” adding that “the Torah does not believe that anyone is born gay. It believes we are all born males and females who grow up into men and women, and anybody can feel a same-sex attraction, but you are prohibited from acting on it.”

The trial resumes on Monday, June 15.

rwiener@njjewishnews.com

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