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‘Gay conversion’ therapy on trial in NJ
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‘Gay conversion’ therapy on trial in NJ

Suit says Jewish-based nonprofit violated Consumer Fraud Act

As he pointed to photographs of the his clients, plaintiffs’ lawyer David Dinielli said JONAH officials warned them they were destined  for “sad lonely lives” if they quit the program. Photos by Associated Press
As he pointed to photographs of the his clients, plaintiffs’ lawyer David Dinielli said JONAH officials warned them they were destined  for “sad lonely lives” if they quit the program. Photos by Associated Press

A Hudson County Superior Court judge began hearing testimony June 3 in a suit claiming an Orthodox-based group that promised to “convert” gay clients violated New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act.

Three Jewish men, the mothers of two of them, and a Mormon offered testimony that the group, known as JONAH, had failed in its promises to “convert” them from gay to straight.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs accused the group of performing “junk science” and said the idea that homosexuality can be “cured” by therapy has been discredited by the mainstream medical and psychological community.

Lawyers for the Jersey City-based JONAH said the organization’s practices are protected under religious liberty and free-speech laws.

The closely watched outcome may determine whether a faith-based group may claim that homosexuality is a “disorder” that can be “cured” by treatments offered by groups like JONAH.

New Jersey, California, Oregon, and the District of Columbia have banned the practice.

Plaintiffs Benjamin Unger, Chaim Levin, Sheldon Bruck, and Michael Ferguson and the mothers of Levin and Bruck are being represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization based in Montgomery, Ala.

In his opening argument, SPLC deputy legal director David Dinielli said that the three plaintiffs “all are gay and were defrauded by a promise of spending money to turn them from gay to straight. But all they got was junk science and a discredited so-called ‘cure.’”

Dinielli argued that those who dropped out of JONAH’s two-to-four-year program were told they were destined for “sad, lonely lives” with the possibility of depression, suicide, pedophilia, and dying of AIDS.

“The plaintiffs are not going to ask for millions of dollars in damages for their pain and suffering. The plaintiffs will ask essentially for a refund. They want their money back. This program didn’t work for them,” Dinielli said.

He asked the jury “to tell the defendants that they shouldn’t have lied when they sold them something that didn’t work. The defendants did violate New Jersey’s consumer fraud law, and given the fact that they broke the law, you should correct this injustice.”

Opening for the defense was Charles LiMandri of the California-based Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund.

LiMandri argued that for most of the time they were involved with JONAH, the plaintiffs were pleased to be moving away from the same-sex attractions that brought them in conflict with their devout religious lifestyles. Unger, Levin, and Bruck were raised as Orthodox Jews.

He said many of the nonprofit’s successful clients are men in heterosexual marriages. “They want to be faithful to their wives. They want to be good fathers to their children. But they have these same-sex attractions,” he said. “They wanted help.”

LiMandri contended that the plaintiffs never asked for a refund, and referred the program to others. But once the plaintiffs left the program, he said, they “became aggressors” who wished “to destroy JONAH.”

JONAH, whose name is an acronym for Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, was founded in 1998 by two New Jersey Jewish couples whose adult children “had become involved in homosexuality,” according to its web site. Its codirectors are Arthur Goldberg, a former investment banker, and Elaine Silodor Berk.

LiMandri said JONAH’s clients are “mostly Jews who come from a faith-based perspective who want to live their lives according to that religion.”

He said his clients “have a right to make statements consistent with their beliefs” that gay men can be turned straight.

‘I could feel his breath’

In his testimony, Unger said he was 19 when his parents enrolled him in JONAH in 2007.

Growing up as a Modern Orthodox Jew in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, Unger said, he believed his religious destiny included marriage to a woman and fathering children.

But at the age of 11 he began developing same-sex attractions. “I began having stress,” which continued to grow and turn into depression while he was attending yeshivas in Brooklyn and Jerusalem, he testified.

He testified that Goldberg assured him the treatment he would receive was based on science, not religion. “The ‘pray away the gay’ theory they did not believe in,” Unger told the jury. “He told me homosexuality was treatable.”

The treatments involved individual and group sessions led by Alan Downing, a “life coach,” unlicensed therapist, and self-described “ex-gay” Mormon.

Unger said he was especially uncomfortable during one session when, at Downing’s urging, he began to undress in front of a mirror. As he stood there bare-chested, Downing was directly behind him. “I could feel his breath on the back of my neck,” he testified.

Unger said he refused Downing’s instruction to strip naked.

In a Nov. 30, 2012, interview with NJ Jewish News, Unger called that part of the treatment “very abusive. Telling someone you have to take off your clothes in front of a mirror in a room with a psychologist because that is what is required to become straight is not just abusive, it’s cruel.”

But Unger’s most emotional moments of testimony came when he told the jury that JONAH leaders suggested that his close relationship with his mother was a major “cause” of his homosexuality.

During group therapy sessions he was instructed to put a pillow on the floor, imagine it to be his mother, and smash it repeatedly with a tennis racket.

Frequently wiping tears from his eyes, Unger told the jury how disturbed he felt at “going through all of this because of my mom…. I was horribly cold to her. She turned to me one day and said, ‘What did I do wrong?’ and I didn’t know how to answer. That was the lowest point in my relationship with my mom.”

Under cross-examination by LiMandri, Unger acknowledged that he had stated in depositions that when he was a child “she would walk around the house completely naked and she would give me a bath while coming into the bath with me.”

He also admitted having written positive e-mails about JONAH on a listserv for participants in the program, but said he became increasingly disillusioned and depressed until he left the program 11 months after enrolling.

Now, at the age of 27, Unger said, he is no longer Orthodox, has a close relationship with his mother, works as a bartender, and fully accepts himself as a gay man.

His cross-examination will resume on June 8.

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