Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Bella Levin, Sue NJ Jewish Gay Conversion Therapists
Two of the men's mothers, Jo Bruck and Bella Levin, who paid for therapy sessions that could cost up to $10,000 a year, were also plaintiffs.
One of the plaintiffs alleges that therapy sessions that involved a virtual "strip tease" in front of an older male counselor, as well as reliving abuse and homophobia were "humiliating."
They are seeking declaratory, injunctive and an undisclosed amount of monetary relief, as well as court costs, according to the lawsuit.
Three of the young plaintiffs are from an ultra orthodox Jewish background; Ferguson came from a Mormon background and met Downing at a "Journey Into Manhood" retreat, according to the lawsuit.
JONAH appears to cater to orthodox Jews, but its methods "do not have a strong religious aspect," according to SPLC lawyer Sam Wolfe.
The lawsuit alleges that some of the methods used included: telling boys to beat a pillow, the "effigy of the client's mother," with a tennis racket; encouraging "cuddling" between younger clients and older male counselors; and even instructing attendees to remove their clothing and hold their penis in front of Downing.
Attendees were also subjected to ridicule as "faggots" and "homos" in mock locker room and gym class role playing, according to the lawsuit.
"It's definitely cruel and unusual and doesn't work," said Wolfe. "They are peddling bogus techniques that have no foundation in science and are basically ridiculous and even harmful."
"Often if what the conversion therapist tells them doesn't work, it's their fault," Wolfe added.
In 2008, when the plaintiffs were seeking help from JONAH, the cost of an individual therapy session was $100 and for a group session, $60. JONAH also "strongly pushed" attending weekend retreats that could cost as much as $700, said Wolfe.
Arthur Goldberg said he "knows nothing about the lawsuit," which was filed this morning, and referred ABCNews.com to JONAH's website.
"We have a lot of people who were a success and were healed," he said of JONAH's 14 years in service. "Hundreds of the clients we serve are satisfied ... Our therapy is very conventional."
When asked about the group's practices, he said, "I can't tell you about the methodology." Goldberg admitted he had "no background specifically in counseling."
"I am the administrator," he said. "I used to teach family law."
According to JONAH's mission statement on its website, the nonprofit group is "dedicated to educating the world-wide Jewish community about the social, cultural and emotional factors which lead to same-sex attractions."
"Through psychological and spiritual counseling, peer support, and self-empowerment, JONAH seeks to reunify families, to heal the wounds surrounding homosexuality, and to provide hope," the statement reads.
JONAH's Goldberg, who runs the business side of the nonprofit, says on the website that "change from homosexual to heterosexual is possible … homosexuality is a learned behavior which can be unlearned, and that healing is a lifelong process."
According to the lawsuit, JONAH cites the "scientific" work of Joseph Nicolosi, one of the primary proponents of conversion therapy and Richard A. Cohen, who was permanently expelled from the American Counseling Association in 2002 for "multiple ethical violations."
Cohen uses a technique called "bioenergetics" that includes having male patients beat a pillow, which represents their mother, as a way of stopping same-sex attraction, according to the lawsuit.
Conversion therapists also cite child abuse and bullying as a "primary cause" of homosexuality, according to the lawsuit.
The American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization, among other mental health groups, have cited the potential risks of reparation therapy, including "depression, anxiety [and] self-destructive behavior," according to the lawsuit.
Chaim Levin, the most vocal of the plaintiffs, is now 23 and a gay rights advocate who writes a blog, Gotta Give 'Em Hope.
He grew up in a Jewish ultra orthodox community in Brooklyn where religious leaders threw him out of the Hebrew-speaking yeshiva at the age of 17, when they learned he was gay.
When Levin met co-director Goldberg, he said the defendant told him JONAH could change his sexual orientation, "as long as I tried hard enough and put enough effort into it."
"He told me, 'You will marry a woman and have a straight life,'" said Levin.
"Given where I came from, with three older siblings who were married with kids and not knowing any gay people or English, I was sure I could change," he said. "That was the theology."
Levin first did a retreat with Downing, then saw him weekly at therapy sessions in Jersey City.
"A lot of the therapy involves reliving the experience," he said. Levin alleges he was forced to relive the sexual abuse by his cousin, "with no counseling afterwards."
But the most "humiliating" experience, the one that Levin alleges made him quit therapy, was being asked by Downing to take off his clothes, article by article and told to touch his "private parts" -- to hold his penis in front of a mirror to "be in touch with my masculinity."
"I told him I wasn't comfortable, but I desperately wanted to change and was ready to do anything," said Levin. Afterward, he said he felt "degraded and violated."
Today, Levin no longer identifies as orthodox, but said his parents have been "supportive" of the lawsuit.