'You can’t pray away the gay, because it’s not a choice'

In the US, gay conversion therapy continues in some Orthodox communities

Although many jurisdictions have banned the controversial ‘cure,’ some Jewish practitioners of the discredited ‘science’ are still operating clandestinely

Reporter at The Times of Israel

A lesbian couple hold hands during the Tel Aviv Gay Pride parade on June 3, 2016 (David Silverman/Getty Images via JTA, File)
A lesbian couple hold hands during the Tel Aviv Gay Pride parade on June 3, 2016 (David Silverman/Getty Images via JTA, File)

BOSTON — A congregant approached Rabbi Mike Moskowitz to discuss her personal life a few years ago. She said was looking for a nice Jewish woman to date, but faced a singular challenge for “out” lesbians in the Jewish community: “All of the lesbians I know are married to men,” she told the clergyman, who has three ultra-orthodox rabbinic ordinations.

Although now an anecdote, the exchange illustrates a paradox of ultra-Orthodox Jewish life in America, Moskowitz told The Times of Israel this week. With nearly all of the community’s rabbis declaring homosexuality a sin, many queer Jews feel compelled to marry “against their identity.”

In ultra-Orthodox yeshivot, for example, Moskowitz said adolescent boys who question their sexual or gender identity are urged to keep silent and think about finding a woman to marry.

“There is so much homophobia in the Orthodox world. But you can’t pray away the gay, because it’s not a choice,” said Moskowitz, today a scholar-in-residence at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City. The congregation serves New York’s LGBTQ Jewish community under senior Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum.

In The Times of Israel’s phone interview with Moskowitz, he reacted to Israeli Education Minister Rafi Peretz’s recent claim that gay conversion therapy could “possibly” change someone’s sexual orientation. Following widespread condemnation of Peretz’s remarks, the minister and former educator attempted to “walk back” the comment in a letter to Israeli teachers, principals, and the Jewish Agency.

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz just took a job at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, a New York City synagogue serving the LGBT community. Next to him is the synagogue’s senior rabbi, Sharon Kleinbaum. (Courtesy of CBST/via JTA)

The consequences of conversion therapies can be deadly: According to studies conducted by UCLA, nearly 700,000 LGBTQ Americans between the ages of 18 and 59 have undergone conversion programs at some point in their lives. Young LGBTQ individuals “rejected” by family and friends are far more likely to attempt suicide, according to a San Francisco State University study.

From Miami Beach to New Jersey, gay conversion groups have been going underground to bypass recent laws that ban the practice in many US jurisdictions. Last month, the New Jersey-based “Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality” (JONAH) was caught operating despite a court order to shut down its ‘gay-to-straight’ programs.

In 2015, five victims of JONAH brought founders Arthur Goldberg and Elaine Berk to court for fraud. Details emerging from the trial included the JONAH tactic of having men undress in front of each other and touch themselves, as well as having participants defile images of their mothers.

To get around the ban on their programs, JONAH’s founders changed the group’s name to the “Jewish Institute for Global Awareness.” Since last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups have been working to dismantle the old-new group, and a New Jersey judge upheld the 2015 ban in proceedings last month.

Benjamin Unger is sworn in as a witness in the trial against Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, (JONAH) Wednesday, June 3, 2015, in Jersey City, NJ (Alex Remnick/The Star-Ledger via AP, Pool)

“Unfortunately, conversion therapy is still a reality in the narrative of many Orthodox Jewish youth today,” said Mordechai Levovitz, clinical director of the group Jewish Queer Youth.

“In response to some of the recent laws passed and modern sentiment that has changed, it often is masked behind different names, but the process is just as insidious,” Levovitz told The Times of Israel. “Even more dangerous than the process itself is the communal pressure and ultimatums that push people into these pseudo-therapeutic responses,” he said.

‘I obviously was unable to help myself’

The country’s most influential LGBTQ magazine, The Advocate, has long exposed the hypocrisy behind gay conversion therapy and its proponents. “Conversion therapy proponent caught trolling for gay men on Manhunt,” read a headline in The Advocate last year, one of several reports on the Miami outing. The article was about Norman Goldwasser, a Jewish practitioner of the discredited treatment.

Chaim Levin, left, and Michael Ferguson, right, with his partner Seth Anderson, listen to a news conference in New York on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012, describing their claims against the JONAH organization that claims it can 'cure' gay men of their homosexuality. (Photo credit: Richard Drew/AP)
Chaim Levin, left, and Michael Ferguson, right, with his partner Seth Anderson, listen to a news conference in New York on November 27, 2012, describing their claims against the JONAH organization that claims it can ‘cure’ gay men of their homosexuality. (Photo credit: Richard Drew/AP)

According to The Advocate, Goldwasser “sought gay sex partners on [the Internet site] Manhunt and kept an account on [the site] Bear Nation.” The magazine described Goldwasser as “an Orthodox Jewish provider of conversion therapy services” in Miami Beach, known for taking clients on “Manhood” programs in the woods.

Essentially, Goldwasser was using his “conversion” program as a cover to hide his rather poorly hidden gay lifestyle.

The group “Truth Wins Out” investigated Goldwasser’s online activities, including his use of the profile name “Hotnhairy72.” Controversially, Truth Wins Out works to “out” members of the so-called “ex-gay” movement who claim to have been cured of their homosexuality. The group condemned Goldwasser for targeting youth and “adversely affecting the mental health” of his clients.

Responding to his “outing” by Truth Wins Out, Goldwasser told NBC News, “I obviously was unable to help myself.”

Despite the exposure, Goldwasser is still practicing “therapy” and “helping people to heal the traumas and wounds of their past, and to help them build new, more functional neural pathways that lead to wanted changes in their emotions, behaviors, sexuality, and relationships,” according to his profile in Psychology Today.

‘Secret allies have to come out of the closet’

Despite the reality of gay conversion therapy’s durability, there is some good news, according to Miryam Kabakov, executive director of Eshel.

“More and more Orthodox communities are admitting that they are welcoming to LGBTQ Jews,” Kabakov told The Times of Israel. Eshel is dedicated “to creating community and acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox communities,” according to the group’s mission statement.

Miryam Kabakov, executive director of Eshel (Facebook)

“Eshel’s ‘Welcoming Shuls’ project has engaged in dialogue with over 150 Orthodox synagogues about their degree of welcome,” said Kabakov. “But it is not enough to feel welcoming — acceptance must be broadcast and made public. Secret allies have to come out of the closet, and be vocal and become public allies,” said Kabakov, founder of New York Orthodykes.

When asked what she tells Jews struggling with their sexual or gender identities, Kabakov said, “We tell them that, first of all, they are not alone. Second, we hear what they want for themselves, not what we think they should want. Ultimately, people want to be happy and at peace with who they are. We help them get there.”

Rabbi Moskowitz has also counseled many Jews who come to him struggling with their sexual or gender identities. Some had been through conversion therapy, during which, he said, “their own identity was framed as a sin.”

“One-hundred-percent of the people are still gay,” said Moskowitz. “And 100% of them are no longer observant,” he added, bemoaning the exclusion of LGBTQ individuals from Orthodox Jewish ritual. These Jews, he said, were forced to make a cruel choice between their identities.

“The practice of gay conversion therapy is converting people out of Judaism,” said Moskowitz. “It is illegal because it’s horrific. We need to hold rabbis accountable who are creating an environment where kids feel they have to take their lives, and Orthodoxy has to take responsibility for its own homophobia.”

Jewish Queer Youth social workers Rachael Fried, Mordechai Levovitz, and Justin Spiro at the Celebrate Israel Parade. (Courtesy JQY)

In recent years, many Reform and Conservative congregations have become more welcoming spaces for LGBTQ clergy, congregants, and teachers. By some accounts, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) in New York has set the pace for Jewish communities interested in LGBTQ inclusion.

This week at the synagogue, for example, there is free and confidential HIV testing, a program on Russian LGBTQ asylum seekers, and a “Trans Life” future visioning session for Trans and non-binary members.

“I think any religious leader who doesn’t condemn gay conversion is committing an act of hillul Hashem/blaspheming God’s name,” CBST’s Rabbi Kleinbaum told The Times of Israel. “Rabbis need to speak publicly about God loving all of Gods creations.”

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