Rabbis condemn proliferation of Ex-Gay programs

SAN FRANCISCO — Avrohom Ben Mordechai said that beginning in high school and throughout college, he learned to be secretive. The young man, who began life in the Lubavitch movement and was schooled through the yeshiva system, created his own double identity.

One was the good frum, or religious, boy, and the other Ben Mordechai was a homosexual — enchanted with the male peers constantly around him. He couldn't go to the rabbis or tell his friends, parents or anyone else about the desires and fantasies plaguing his every waking moment.

Instead, Ben Mordechai — who requested that his Hebrew name be used for anonymity — suppressed the information. And he envied other boys for qualities he didn't possess: a sturdy demeanor, an essence of masculinity. He didn't tell anyone about the difficulties he was having with Judaism — pretending to be more or less religious, depending on the situation he was in. The strain of maintaining the facade took all of his energy.

He became depressed and filled with self-loathing. "I was Clark Kent and Superman," Ben Mordechai said.

He felt like he had no one to turn to.

So when Ben Mordechai saw a small advertisement in the back of a New York magazine that simply stated, "Gay to straight, make the journey," he called the phone number listed.

Today, Ben Mordechai is devoted and married to a woman.

The New Jersey-headquartered Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality is the first national outreach organization to assist men and women working through unwanted same-sex attractions in a manner consistent with Torah principles.

The group has become a dues-paying member of the Encino-based National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, with JONAH officials speaking at the last several NARTH events.

"They have recently been attending our meetings, and are very supportive of our common viewpoint that they find in our writings and discussions that homosexuality is a condition that, in cases, is treatable," said Ben Kaufman, NARTH's chairman of the board and a clinical professor of psychology at U.C. Davis.

"When I say 'treatable,' that is a big word. We're talking about motivated people, people who are motivated for change. And even then, treatability depends on the skills available and the commitment of all parties to a heterosexual outcome."

Through NARTH, JONAH has access to a library of scientific studies and an extensive therapist referral database.

Kaufman, who is Jewish, says the goal of NARTH and JONAH isn't to convert content homosexuals, but only those who wish to alter their sexual orientation.

"If I see a smoker, that bothers me. But if I go tell him to stop smoking, that's another matter," said Kaufman. "When you start telling people what to do — I have major problems with that."

Arthur Goldberg, a board member of JONAH who lives in New York, maintains that the Torah offers the option of tshuvah, or repentance, for homosexual behavior. He believes the Torah contends that homosexuals have been "led astray," and are therefore able to change that behavior.

Most importantly, Goldberg feels that it is imperative to find a Jewish voice that clearly defines a position.

"This issue has been swept under the rug by the Orthodox community, and the Reform community historically has embraced homosexuality," said Goldberg. "There is a lot of misinformation and very little written material to support a compassionate yet firm Jewish response.

"There is a sexual brokenness in our society in both the heterosexual and homosexual communities. Those who are looking for the way to live according to God's laws, who are in pain, should have a choice. Once you say [homosexuality] is something that can be repaired, they should be allowed to pursue their journey to wholeness."

Alameda Reform Temple Israel's Allen Bennett, the nation's first openly gay rabbi, takes offense at Goldberg's notion that homosexuals have been "led astray," however.

"I would dismiss that immediately as nonsense, utter nonsense," said Bennett. "You could ask the simple question of what percentage of heterosexuals have been 'led astray' who might have gone the other way. Hold up the mirror. This is ludicrous, and it's based on a clearly false assumption."

Bennett adds that while people like Goldberg may be well-intentioned, their efforts are misguided and, in the end, probably harmful.

"I do my very best to respect people who believe they are following the mitzvot. But I do not respect anybody who is engaging in evangelical behavior," Bennett said. "Folks who do this stuff are crusading. That they do it from honest motives is perfectly fine.

"But the extent to which they make other people's lives even more unhappy than those folks were when they came to them is something I can't measure but about which I have very strong suspicions."

Bennett is dismayed to learn there are more of these "sexual reorientation" programs are cropping up in the Jewish community, whereas before, it was a domain of the Christian right.

Two Baltimore-area Orthodox clinical psychologists have recently initiated Torah Approaches to Healing and Change — a sexual reorientation therapy program. Drs. Aviva Weisbord and Martin Koretzky feel that Jews need to have an alternative to gay-affirmative therapy, in which a homosexual attends sessions to become comfortable in his or her sexual orientation. They would not say how many people have joined the group so far.

"We are coming from a place of acceptance," Weisbord said. "If we do the right thing — we can't go wrong."

That, however, is up for debate.

"I think these kinds of groups prey on vulnerable individuals and it's an approach that's very damaging to the spiritual, physical and emotional well-being of people struggling to find acceptance of their sexuality," said Rabbi Camille Angel of Reform Congregation Sha'ar Zahav.

"I think the best antidote to their message is to open our doors wider and make it clear we accept people for exactly who they are and who they love, as our Jewish values mandate," Angel, who is a lesbian, added.

But this sort of opposition does not deter those championing conversion therapy

Last August, Koretzky and Weisbord attended the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, where for the first time in its history there was a panel discussion on the topic of sexual orientation titled "Gays, Ex-Gays, Ex-Ex-Gays: Examining Key Religious, Ethical and Diversity Issues." The pair of psychologists presented the viewpoint of possible sexual reorientation, while two other psychologists spoke about gay-affirmative therapy.

"The remarkable thing about it was that everyone was very polite and civil," said Koretzky. "And the APA has not been open to this conversation for a very long time. The key compromise was that both sides agreed that individuals have a right to seek treatment they feel that they want.

"In other words, nobody should be telling people, 'No, you have to do this, or you have to do that.' Rather, someone says, 'I feel this way — this is who I am,' and the profession has to respect that."

The dialogue came 28 years after homosexuality was removed from the listing of pathologies in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — something of a bible for psychologists that defines the diagnostic criteria for all mental disorders.