Before 1998, religious proponents of so-called “reparative” therapy for gay men and lesbians were affiliated mostly with evangelical strains of Protestantism and the Mormon Church. But that year, Arthur Goldberg, a self-described “born salesman” and “New York Jewish liberal,” discovered he had a son who was “struggling with homosexuality.” Soon after, Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (later changed to “for Healing”), or JONAH, was born. “There was nothing in the Jewish world,” Goldberg said in recent court testimony, by way of explaining his decision to co-found JONAH with Elaine Berk, another Jewish parent of a gay son.
There were a lot of Christian based organizations. There were some secular based organizations, but there was nothing in the Jewish world. I kind of prayed about it one day and said maybe this is the message God has given me. The reason God has this is he knows I have been a social activist all my life and maybe this is what he wants to lead me to.
Goldberg’s son went on to live an openly gay life, but that did not deter his father and Berk from turning JONAH into the go-to organization for Orthodox Jewish men desperate to rid themselves of their “same sex attraction,” or SSA. Bolstered by articles in right-leaning Orthodox Jewish publications and the endorsement of prominent Orthodox rabbis, JONAH operated out of an office in Jersey City, offering so-called “strugglers” a framework for understanding the causes of their attraction to other men and a practical program for change.
JONAH operates with the view that all men are born straight, but some become gay because of “emotional wounds” or childhood sexual abuse. Healing those wounds, according to Goldberg, is best accomplished through engaging in “gender affirming” activities designed to decrease “body shame” and increase feelings of masculinity. Such activities include (to quote from trial testimony of a JONAH client) a “rebirthing” exercise followed by a naked group frolic in the woods, where men roll around in the mud and have cake fights before washing each other off in a group shower in preparation for meeting women in ball gowns who are there to help them experience “unification.”
And then, according to recent court testimony, there is JONAH’s “guts work,” processes in which strugglers might beat objects meant to represent their mothers, or get duct-taped to another man, covered by a blanket and surrounded by a circle of other men, or taped to a pole, in order to “create metaphors” and “access emotion.” Other activities might involve directing the reenactment of one’s past sexual abuse or being subjected to homophobic taunts—“Let’s get that little queer in the shower” or “Catch the ball next time or I’ll shove it up your ass”—in a locker room setting while blindfolded.
Of course, despite JONAH’s claims to the contrary, there is nothing scientific, let alone Jewish, about any of this. But that never stopped Goldberg. What could stop him is the recent lawsuit. In June, a Jersey City jury found that defendants JONAH, Goldberg, and life coach Alan Downing had committed consumer fraud. For this, they will be forced to pay $72,400 in damages and the plaintiffs’ legal fees. The plaintiffs are also asking that JONAH be shut down, a request that judge has yet to rule on.
It is hard to know for sure whether Goldberg really believes in the theories and methods JONAH espouses; there was nothing in his trial testimony to indicate otherwise. Indeed, to hear him tell it, his founding of JONAH—whose tax exempt forms declare, “Yes, change is possible”—was but one example among many of how he has used his God-given gifts to help others throughout a lifetime of civil rights work that includes stints “down south doing voter registration drives, freedom rides on the buses and all that kind of good stuff. ”
But there is little doubt that Goldberg was selling something that numerous Orthodox rabbis, mental health professionals and, perhaps most important, desperate clients and their families wanted to buy. And so they did, unaware that in addition to his divinely inspired commitment to helping others, Arthur Goldberg also had a rather storied history of fraud.
In fact, about 25 years before a jury found that JONAH had engaged in “unconscionable” business practices, Arthur Goldberg pleaded guilty to mail fraud and conspiracy in connection with what the U.S. attorney alleged was a fraudulent scheme of “spectacular” scope, involving bribery and deception related to his work as an underwriter of municipal bonds. And while that case and the lawsuit against JONAH share virtually nothing of substance in common, they both involved Jewish communities with which Goldberg had nurtured ties, ties that those communities likely came to regret.
In the early 1960s, Arthur Abba Goldberg, the son of a Jersey City lawyer, was a government major at American University, in Washington, D.C. His extracurricular activities, according to the university’s undergraduate yearbook, The Talon, reflected the kind of interests typical of a young man who might be looking toward a career in government or the law: memberships in social and political science honor societies, the Civil Rights Committee, and a community service fraternity, as well as the editorship of the school’s paper.
After college, Goldberg attended Cornell Law School, and by the late 1960s he was a deputy attorney general in New Jersey, acting as counsel to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs and the Housing Finance Agency. In a January 1968 letter to Martin Luther King—written soon after the news that the Ford Foundation had given a grant to King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to train “Negro ministers in urban leadership and help them start local programs that deal with the crisis of the cities”—Goldberg touted his own “broad-based background in the problems of the cities and civil rights.” He enclosed a résumé.
Three months later Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Within a few years Goldberg—who by then had co-authored several articles on exclusionary zoning—had left the public sector for Wall Street, where by 1973 he was a vice-president at the investment firm Matthews & Wright. In that same year, he also served as the president of the Section 23 Leased Housing Association, a Washington, D.C.-based organization comprising local authorities and others involved in what was known as the Section 23 housing program, a federal housing subsidy program for low-income families.
All this work likely put Goldberg in a good position to help when Soviet Jewish émigrés began arriving in Jersey City—part of a first wave of Soviet Jewish emigration to the United States—just weeks before Rosh Hashana in 1974. Indeed, with his background and connections in housing and the “problems of the cities,” Goldberg became heavily involved in the émigrés’ resettlement, incorporating the nonprofit Committee for the Absorption of Soviet Émigrés, or CASE, that same year.
Headquartered today a few blocks from the Hudson River, in a handsome late-19th-century brownstone at 80 Grand Street in Jersey City, CASE’s mission is to “relocate and absorb into American life refugees of Jewish origin from Russia and other countries where religious and social persecution exist.” According to newspaper reports, Goldberg acted as CASE’s chairman, and a Latvian photographer named Joseph Shneberg acted as its salaried director. A 1978 article in the Chicago Tribune noted that most of the CASE staff and half its board consisted of immigrants. Another account highlighted the fact that CASE’s board of governors included several members of Congress and prominent writers.
By 1978, according to the Tribune, with public financing arranged by Jersey City’s mayor and CASE as the charitable sponsor, the new arrivals had begun to renovate a block of run-down Jersey City row houses for rental. CASE had also acquired a five-story building that it planned to turn into a community center. By 1979, the émigré community had grown to about 500 members.
In 1981, Goldberg formed and became the head of the New American Federal Credit Union (NAFCU), whose purpose, according to records, was making loans to émigrés from Soviet Russia and initiating them “into the mysteries of American financial operations … which the émigré usually finds of baffling complexity.” NAFCU also provided important financial support to CASE, paying about $5,000 a month to CASE in rent, according to credit union financial records referenced by the Philadelphia Inquirer. That money helped to support other CASE programs, including a synagogue, a literary magazine, and a museum of Soviet dissident art. All this was housed as CASE’s headquarters at 80 Grand Street.
For all his efforts on behalf of the community of Soviet émigrés, Montgomery Street in Jersey City—where Goldberg and his wife live today—came to be referred to as “Goldberg Prospect.”
Goldberg’s involvement with the émigrés began to seem a bit less charitable after he was indicted in 1987 by a federal grand jury in Guam.
Prosecutors alleged that Goldberg’s firm, Matthews & Wright, had used NAFCU in a scheme that was apparently designed to create the false impression that over $2 billion in municipal bonds had been issued in time to beat restrictive provisions in the tax code.
According to prosecutors, Matthews & Wright, trying to make it look like it had raised money for the bond issues, wrote bogus checks for hundreds of millions of dollars on a NAFCU account. They then claimed to deposit the checks in an offshore bank on the West Pacific island of Saipan. But the bank was nothing more than a shell (on many documents its mailing address was actually listed as CASE’s headquarters).
Testifying before a federal grand jury, NAFCU’s manager, Joel Schwartz, described signing—at Goldberg’s instruction and under fear of losing his job—phony bond documents as an officer of the shell bank.
And NAFCU also had its own troubles apart from the alleged fraudulent scheme. In 1983, with Goldberg at its helm and his brother Leonard acting as its attorney, NAFCU began raising money through a program in which communities across the country issued tax-exempt bonds for economic development projects. The bond proceeds were invested with NAFCU, which then lent the money to project developers.
These deals increased NAFCU’s deposit base and earned it hefty service fees. However, one of the developers stopped making payments on about $20 million in loans, pushing NAFCU toward insolvency.
Examiners also found that NAFCU had made loans to employees of Matthews & Wright, including Arthur Goldberg. In certain transactions, the borrowers would not receive the funds, which would instead be placed in a Matthews & Wright deposit account at NAFCU, represented as a corporate asset to Matthews & Wright auditors. In August 1987 NAFCU was closed by federal authorities.
At the time all this was uncovered, the Inquirer quoted Rabbi Elizer Grafstein, CASE’s director until April of 1987, saying that Matthews & Wright had used NAFCU “as a way of having a bank, of clearing bonds their own way.” Herman Nadel, a Jersey City accountant and CASE board member at the time, told the paper he himself was unclear about what Matthews & Wright was doing in connection with NAFCU, adding that the Russian émigrés “within [NAFCU] know very little about it. What’s being said is being said in English. I don’t know that they really understand.” When NAFCU was finally shut down, Yaffa Oren, one of its members, said that Goldberg was “using the credit union as a front” for questionable activities” and that efforts to help the Russians were a front. “I don’t think they understand what’s going on,” Oren said.
Goldberg pleaded guilty in 1989 to three counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison and ultimately was forced to pay $100,000 in restitution.
Goldberg declined to be interviewed for this story, and his wife, recently listed as the president of CASE, did not respond to an email seeking an interview. Attempts to contact Victor Golubchik, the former NAFCU accountant and CASE’s current vice president, were also not successful.
In a statement posted on the JONAH website, however, Goldberg addresses his felony conviction, emphasizing that the trial judge’s sentencing was based on unproven allegations. He also notes the government’s “pre-sentence investigation report to the judge for the sentence actually served specifically found that no money was lost” by any investor in the transactions.
Matthews & Wright lost its license in 1989. In 1995, Arthur Goldberg was disbarred by the New Jersey Supreme Court. Just a few years later JONAH was born, taking up residence at 80 Grand Street to “deal with unwanted same-sex attraction” and educate “the Jewish community and the larger general public that change is possible.”
Today, JONAH’s fate is up in the air, although, to judge from its website, it looks as if it’s business as usual, with no mention of the recent verdict anywhere to be found. It is still headquartered in the CASE building at 80 Grand Street, in the heart of a gentrifying Jersey City neighborhood.
CASE also appears to be an ongoing concern, though it is unclear from available public documents what exactly it does these days. Its most recent 990, from 2013, lists close to $25,000 of expenses related to the “education and training of refugees,” though there are no further details as to what that entails. The tax form also notes that Goldberg himself has lent money to CASE for a building purchase and repairs. And something called the Barrow Street Housing Project is listed as a CASE asset.
This appears to refer to the Barrow Street Housing Company, a limited partnership formed, according to state business records, by Goldberg in 2006, with his wife Jane as the general partner and Victor Golubchik an untitled officer. Tax records show that the company owns several buildings on Jersey City’s Mercer Street, a row house on Montgomery Street, and a block of row houses around the corner on shady, tree-lined Barrow Street that feature hand-carved triangular pediments over the entryways and windows and a sign instructing visitors in Russian to “Press your face to this glass or we will not open.”
So, Goldberg is still in business, although for what precisely, it is hard to say. He is, in his own words, a man who loves “helping people … in pain and distress. And trying to assist them in trying to reach their personal goals for what they are looking for.” But most gay people would say that they don’t need his help. And the rest of us can probably do without it, too.
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