The biggest Jewish gay “conversion therapy” organization has been operating in secret after US courts shut it down

The New Jersey-based group catered to orthodox Jewish communities in places like Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
The New Jersey-based group catered to orthodox Jewish communities in places like Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Image: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
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In 2015, Chaim Levin thought his long legal nightmare was over.

Levin was one of several young men who successfully sued JONAH that year, the only Jewish gay-conversion therapy organization in the US. JONAH (an acronym for Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, and formerly for Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality) operated out of an office in Jersey City, New Jersey. It referred teenagers and young adults—mostly Jewish men—to self-described therapists like Alan Downing, a man with a theater degree and no psychology education or mental health license.

In 2007, Levin was a teenager growing up in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and he felt his attraction to men was incompatible with his understanding of the obligations of his faith. JONAH promised to excise Levin’s sexual orientation from his consciousness, like one might an addiction.

At the 2015 trial, Levin and the other plaintiffs described elaborate, pseudoscientific exercises. Downing and others constructed psychodramas, asking the men to strip naked in front of mirrors while saying disparaging things about themselves, bash pillow effigies of their mothers with tennis rackets, and cuddle with older men on floors in groups, among other things, according to the plaintiffs’ testimony. They were also brought to camp-like retreats in the woods, where they were told to shower naked together, wear blindfolds while others shouted scripted epithets at them, and recreate their own births by wriggling out of swaddling blankets, nude.

The American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and virtually all other major US health-professional groups say gay conversion therapy is psychologically harmful and ineffective. It’s banned in New Jersey and a handful of other states. In 2012, Levin and his co-plaintiffs, represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and two other law firms, sued JONAH and its founders for consumer fraud. After drawn-out court proceedings, they won in December 2015. The New Jersey Superior court ordered JONAH to close and liquidate its assets by June 2016.

That was supposed to be the end of it.

But 11 days after the jury found JONAH guilty, its founders, Arthur Goldberg and Elaine Berk, opened a new nonprofit: the Jewish Institute for Global Awareness, or JIFGA (which was actually a recycled acronym; the two had previously called their organization the the “Jonah Institute for Gender Affirmation”). JIFGA filed for nonprofit status using JONAH’s old address and phone number.

The legal team behind the original lawsuit filed a motion on March 28 of this year urging the New Jersey court to enforce its original ruling. They allege that JIFGA’s operations are “indistinguishable” from JONAH’s—that it is carrying on as though no court order had happened. In fact, the SPLC sent a letter to JONAH’s lawyers asking for more information about JIFGA in January—and JONAH’s lawyers responded by confirming that yes, their clients were providing referrals to therapists under the new name, and that JIFGA’s new clients “most likely” include individuals “seeking assistance with “same-sex attraction.”

The current JIFGA website includes a page titled “Funding Morality,” which says the organization advocates for a “Judeo-Christian worldview,” which prohibits “sexual deviations,” including homosexuality. In its March motion (pdf), the SPLC noted that the site also linked to a crowdfunding page for a documentary about Joseph Nicolosi, the deceased founder of a Christian ex-gay ministry with chapters across the country; Earlier this week, the page said it was “under construction,” at the time of publication it appears to have been taken down entirely.

If Goldberg and Berk are found in violation of the original order, they would owe the plaintiffs $3.5 million in legal fees. The duo behind JIFGA have until April 27 to respond to the motion—a failure to respond would also be a violation of the original order. When reached by email for comment on April 3, Goldberg told Quartz he hadn’t read the the legal filing. “I am presently out of the country and have not had an opportunity to review the action,” he wrote, replying from an email address that included JONAH in its name.