Gay and Jewish in Brooklyn

The Brooklyn Ink/March 31, 2010

Benjy Unger remembers sitting cross-legged on his therapist's floor, waiting to be tapped on the head. Dressed in traditional Orthodox Jewish regalia, "the whole garb," the 25 year-old was playing duck, duck, goose.

The children's game is one of several tactics used by Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality, or JONAH, to turn gay Jews straight. The idea is to return men to a childlike state, in order to rewire their sexuality. The organization, based in Jersey City, attracts men like Unger, who is from Borough Park, with the goal of treating homosexuality as a kind of disease, in order that they might have a heterosexual marriage. In the Orthodox communities of Brooklyn, many gay Jews feel pressured to change, and they provide a substantial chunk of business for these types of programs. JONAH is one of many, though it claims to be the only organization specifically tailored to this gay Jewish audience.

According to the American Psychological Association, there is no evidence that reparative therapy, as this type of conversion technique is known, is successful. Last fall, Dr. Judith Glassgold chaired an investigation on its behalf into reparative therapy and concluded that, "there is insufficient evidence to support the use of psychological interventions to change sexual orientation." Yet JONAH remains an attractive option for many young Jewish men in Brooklyn. The organization declined to comment.

"If you are Orthodox you have a choice: you are either Orthodox or gay. You have to choose, you can't be both" Unger said. "You grow up hearing it's a sickness, and one day you realize, 'Oh my God, I have this'," he explained.

Though there are those who accept his sexuality, his community as a whole holds a negative perception of homosexuality. At one extreme, the lack of acceptance of homosexuality within ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities is clear in the statements made by Rabbi Yehuda Levin, a Flatbush rabbi and a spokesman for the Rabbinical Alliance of America. In a Youtube video he blames the earthquake in Haiti on homosexuality.

Unger was raised in a highly Orthodox family, and attended conservative yeshivas as he was growing up. He was eventually expelled from a Brooklyn yeshiva when his sexuality became known. Even his friends were unsure how to react. "People went crazy when I said I was gay. I was getting calls about it, nobody believed me," he said. "It's a really misunderstood issue in Brooklyn."

He came out to his family last year and, while they were supportive, they paid for him to attend therapy sessions at JONAH. The therapy, he says, was his own idea. Twice a week for the next year, Unger traveled to Jersey City, paying a weekly total of $160 for one private and one group session with around 10 to 12 other men. "After a year, we're talking thousands of dollars," he said. And, he says, he did not reap any benefits, instead finding the experience damaging. "I'm in therapy because of it now," Unger said. "I'm actually in reparative therapy for my reparative therapy."

"When I heard of JONAH, I thought, 'Wow, that's amazing!' They have many members because we are desperate to change, because we have no option. But it can be very destructive," he continued.

Unger's friends were predominantly supportive throughout this period, he says, though he remains the only gay person they know. "There's so little education about this in the Orthodox community that some people actually did not believe it was physically possible to be Orthodox and gay. It's impossible to be accepted into the community and be gay. Impossible. It doesn't exist." According to Unger, JONAH has one member who has been attending therapy for 15 years.

Much of his therapy at JONAH focused on the idea of masculinity, Unger said. He was told the reason he was gay was that he was too close to his mother, and that his relationship with his father was not strong enough. As a result he distanced himself from his mother, a course of action he regrets.

JONAH claims many success stories and its website is filled with testimonials from men for whom their therapy has apparently worked, but Unger believes this success is defined predominantly through abstinence, rather than a holistic change. The organization has created its own lingo for discussing what in religious Judaism is frequently considered unspeakable: homosexuality is "same sex attraction," or SSA. The website offers the knowledge of how to "journey out of homosexuality." Gay men are repackaged as those who "are involved in homosexuality" or "embrace the false identities of homosexuality."

[Mr. N.], 22, attended JONAH for 8 months before leaving the organization in January. Originally from Seattle, where he was raised Orthodox, the family relocated to Crown Heights a year ago. [Mr. N.] came out to most of his family and several of his siblings still do not know he is gay, but he is planning to come out to them at the upcoming Passover festival—when he was 20. "They basically pushed me back in the closet," he said. "The closet was named JONAH."

"JONAH has done a lot of good, because it's therapy and it can be helpful, but it's done a lot of bad too," he said, adding that he found several of the therapy sessions he attended useful in a general sense.

In the Torah, the holy book on which these beliefs are predicated, certain homosexual acts such as anal sex are categorized as sins, but homosexuality itself is not explicitly condemned in halacha, Jewish law. According to its website, JONAH bases its therapy on the idea that homosexuality is a type of conduct rather than an identity, another belief at odds with the American Psychological Association.

Like Unger, [Mr. N.] experienced the same focus on masculinity at JONAH. This bothered him. "I'm masculine, I'm a guy. I like sports," he said. "I was on the basketball team, I played soccer." [Mr. N.] recalls an experience he had at work recently, when his shoe squeaked on a plastic floor. The sound took him back to a weekend retreat he had participated in with an organization similar to JONAH, People Can Change.

"We were all blindfolded and the therapists bounced basketballs and yelled 'pussy' and 'faggot' at us, trying to bring us back to being the loser in gym, and the experiences we had. I never had that. I was always one of the guys," he said.

[Mr. N.] remembers a therapy session at JONAH where he was asked to strip in his therapist's office, and then given a massage. "I'm lying down with a blanket covering my bottom, getting a massage, and he asked me to put my hand on the masseuse's thigh," he said. At other times, he was asked to hug other men for long periods of time, allegedly to accustom him to feeling like a heterosexual man would in that situation. These therapies are based on the research of psychologist Dr. Elan Karten, who argues that sexuality is changeable. [Mr. N.] no longer thinks so.

"Occasionally I'd feel attracted to a girl and I'd be like, 'Oh my God, it's changing!' But, fundamentally, you can't change who you are," [Mr. N.] said. "Sexuality is a piece of the pizza pie but its one of a lot of things."

Chaim, who did not want his last name used in this article, is a 21 year-old Crown Heights-based Lubavitch Jew who was also sent to the same organization by his parents. He was told that if he could not change it was for want of effort on his part. He left a yeshiva when it was discovered that was gay, but no other yeshiva he applied to would accept him. "They'd heard about me," he said. He is now enrolled on a nursing course at Kingsborough College.

"My friends took a little time to come around and it wasn't easy for my family- my mother still thinks I'm going to wake up one day and be over this," he said. "We're given a dream, it's sort of like a manual: get married and have children. To let go of that is very scary."

Chaim stresses that he can't make a judgment about JONAH except to explain how it affected him. But he describes finding changing his sexuality to be impossible. He dated women but found that it "didn't work." Chaim has spoken with some rabbis who have been sympathetic, but they seem to have no solution mapped out for him, no template for how someone in his position is supposed to live their life.

"They tell me what I am doing is 'wrong,' but they don't know how it can be made 'right' without leading a life of celibacy," he said.

For Chaim, the Jewish gay community is a separate, although small, family within his religious world. Having been involved with organizations for frum or formerly frum Jewish youth, like himself, he also believes that acceptance is starting to grow, and that the community as a whole is starting to open up. In particular his involvement with JQ Youth, which was founded by two Flatbush Jews, offers him a place where he is completely accepted. The group exists publicly only on the Internet, and allows its members to remain anonymous, although it holds monthly meetings in the New York area. In spite of this, "many of our members are somewhat in the closet," its website states.

In December, the Yeshiva University Tolerance Club held a panel called Being Gay in the Orthodox World, which was moderated by Rabbi Yosef Blau, which gave him further hope. "That was a big deal," he explained excitedly, "but it didn't register everywhere. People in my community ignored it."

"Attitudes still need to change," he said. "An acquaintance of mine from JONAH recently got married. A lot of rabbis believe if you get married, you will get better. It's not true. Marriage is not a hospital."

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