Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH) is one of those groups with such a vague-sounding name that you know they're up to something strange. In fact, the New Jersey–based nonprofit was in the business of "curing" same-sex attraction, which they call SSA. JONAH was founded in 1999 by two sets of parents with homosexual sons, and it's been an object of ridicule among mainstream scientists pretty much ever since.
The American Psychiatric Association has been pretty adamant that "conversion therapy," a..k.a. "reparative therapy," a.k.a. the practice of trying to turn gay people into straights, is harmful. The rhetoric of its practitioners has been used to promote genocide in Africa, and people who do it can be driven to the point of performing exorcisms on themselves. Still, until Tuesday, no one with legal authority has ever called out an organization like JONAH.
Tuesday was when New Jersey Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso, Jr. likened reparative therapy to consumer fraud and told the group it could no longer say that homosexuality was a disease that needed curing. A deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center told NJ.com that the decision was "monumental and devastating to the conversion therapy industry." New Jersey banned reparative therapy for minors in 2013, but this case could be the one that shuts down outfits like JONAH for good.
As it happens, a few weeks ago I got curious and decided to see what would happen if I filled out a form on JONAH's site requesting a consultation. Almost immediately, Arthur Goldberg, one of the organization's founders, offered to give me a call. I'm not proud of my trolling, and never expected to use it for a story, but what he told me mirrors what he apparently told the plaintiffs in the case: That there was a way to go from gay to straight. Goldberg ticked off theories about why I was "same-sex-attracted"—maybe I didn't fit in as a kid, maybe I had body-image issues. He told me that I could fix all this, and to ignore the haters in the media. "That's bullshit that's out there about how people can't change," he told me. "Hundreds of people have gone from gay to straight."
Obviously I never hit up the woman whose number Goldberg gave me after our conversation. But the lawsuit (pdf) gives some insight into the quackery I could have expected had I been serious. Chaim Levin, one of the plaintiffs, was 18 and living in a very Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood when he came across a JONAH ad in the Jewish Press. He told me gay people lived "in the Village, and Manhattan—not in Crown Heights," meaning he only knew what his rabbi told him.
When he hooked up with JONAH, his therapist asked him to slowly remove pieces of clothing while saying things he didn't like about himself. Then he was instructed to "touch his penis and then his buttocks," according to the suit.
"I remember feeling humiliated," Chaim, now 25, says. "After that session I left without telling anyone for a year and a half. Even though [my counselor] didn't physically force me, I felt very pressured."
The jury trial doesn't start until next week, but it seems like JONAH won't have a leg to stand on, considering the judge has also ruled the group won't be allowed to call "experts" to the stand. Chaim, at least, has no doubt about what the outcome will be.
"I really do think any jury will be able to see what they're doing is so, so wrong and so, so harmful," he said. "I was struggling with a lot when I was 18, and JONAH definitely made everything a lot worse."
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