This isn’t the plot for a new primetime television show (though maybe it should be), it’s the story of how Orthodox Jews jumped way ahead of the curve and joined the national conversation about LGBT rights, religious freedom, and conversion therapy.
For the first time ever, Orthodox Jewish community leaders of all stripes participated in a full-day conference run by mental health professionals to discuss sexuality issues. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as Barack Obama’s call to end LGBT conversion therapy recently reignited the national conversation on the topic.
Entitled Desire, faith, and therapy: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity in the Orthodox Jewish Community, the conference looked to explore topics rarely embraced by the community. “Orthodox culture has always been two steps behind mainstream culture,” said Dr Alison Feit. “Culture is shifting.”
Chaim Levin, a 25-year-old gay Jew, said: “If such a conference would have taken place eight years ago before I went to conversion therapy, then maybe I would’ve been spared.”
Levin participated in Jonah – Jews Offering New Alternatives to Healing – a Jewish conversion therapy organisation, as a minor. He alleges he was emotionally, mentally and physically abused by his counselor. Levin is one of four plaintiffs suing the organisation for fraudulent practices. In the lawsuit, which is set to go to trial later this year, Levin describes some instances of the abuse:
Downing [his therapist] initiated a discussion about Levin’s body and instructed Levin to stand in front of a full-length mirror and hold a staff. Downing directed Levin to say one negative thing about himself, remove an article of clothing, then repeat the process. Although Levin protested and expressed discomfort, at Downing’s insistence, Levin submitted and continued until he was fully naked. Downing then instructed Levin to touch his penis and then his buttocks. Levin, unsure what to do but trusting in and relying on Downing, followed the instructions, upon which Downing said ‘good’ and the session ended.
Jonah claims to be able to “cure” homosexuals, but there’s one problem: the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973. They then issued a statement 25 years later overtly decrying any psychiatric treatment to homosexuality, such as reparative or conversion therapy.
Mordechai Levovitz, the founder of Jewish Queer Youth , a nonprofit dedicated to providing support for at-risk LGBT youth in the Orthodox community, was also a victim of conversion therapy. As a co-chair of the conference, he stood up and announced to the room of Jewish communal leaders, rabbis and mental health professionals that pride is a way for the LGBT community to regain mental health and self-confidence and to no longer feel shamed, he said.
Rightwing rabbis, whose position is outlined in a document known as the Torah Declaration, deny the possibility of a homosexual identity. It also states that “same-sex attraction can be modified and healed”, which is why these rabbinic figures still refer LGBT community members to conversion therapists. These rabbis – both ultra-Orthodox and modern Orthodox – will still not engage in any form of dialogue about the matter.
Some rightwing and ultra-Orthodox communities lack the actual language to discuss sexuality and gender. In Yiddish, for example, there is no actual translation for penis. Some communities have slang terms for it and others call it makom habrit, meaning the place of circumcision.The more progressive approach, known as the Statement of Principles, allows for the possibility of a gay identity, but “cannot give its blessing and imprimatur to Jewish religious same-sex commitment ceremonies and weddings”. The document was penned by a New Jersey rabbi, Nathaniel Helfgott, who attended the conference.
The issue with both points of view up until this Sunday, however, was that they were both relatively uninformed. The rightwing approach denies the science – that much is clear. The more progressive rabbis, too, were not well versed in issues of gender and sexual identity.
The liberal rabbis want to learn more. “No one wants to see a battle at any point in an Orthodox synagogue about a baker refusing to make a cake for a gay wedding,” said Shaul Robinson, the rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue, a liberal Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan. “We want to learn.”
Helfgott, the author of the more liberal Orthodox statement on homosexuality, publicly revised his stance on conversion therapy: “We gave an even-handed presentation about reparative therapy. Today we would’ve sharpened our approach to it … the psychology community has proven the negative effects.”
Dratch furthered this, saying because of the damage conversion therapy can inflict, “in this one rabbi’s opinion, [it] is something that is less than appropriate – it’s much less than appropriate, it’s wrong and it’s not something that should be done” (in 2012, Dratch was responsible for pulling the Rabbinical Council of America’s support for Jonah).
Renowned mental health presenters at the conference, like Dr Jack Drescher and Dr Warren Throckmorton, spoke about the proven risks and harm caused by reparative therapy. These risks are especially relevant to LGBT Orthodox Jews and LGBT members of other religious communities that do not display sensitivity to these populations. According to the Family Acceptance Project, gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection.
That statistic, coupled with the fact that 73% of Jewish kids in New York are Orthodox, paints a jarring picture. “That means the vast majority of Jewish kids struggling with LGBT issues in the greater NYC area are Orthodox,” said Feit. If conversations about sexuality remain taboo in the Orthodox community, more and more teens will be at risk.
Of course, Orthodox Jews aren’t the only Abrahamic tradition that struggles to reconcile modern culture with their faith. “Although there’s no good sample data out there,” Clinton Anderson, the director of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns Office of the American Psychological Association, told ABC News, “based on my experience most people who undergo this kind of therapy are evangelical Christians, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Mormons and other people from religious or conservative communities.”
Dr Mark Blechner, an adjunct professor at New York University, added that in these communities “the similarities are much more than the differences”. That being the case, he added, “the kinds of issues discussed here can relate to all religious communities.”
Perhaps, as divisive as the issue often is, it may also have the potential to bring people together.