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JONAH, a Gay Conversion Therapy Group, Sued For Consumer Fraud

Laws banning ‘bogus’ practices are gaining steam nationwide

Jas Chana
June 05, 2015

JONAH, a New-Jersey based gay-conversion therapy organization, which offers journeys from “unwanted same-sex attraction,” is being sued for “deceptive practices that lured plaintiffs into the expensive, harmful therapy”—consumer fraud. Proceedings began this week. (Court documents can be found here.)

The case against JONAH, or Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (the “H” formerly stood for “Homosexuality”), was filed in 2012 by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC):

The lawsuit claims that JONAH, its founder, Arthur Goldberg, and counselor Alan Downing violated New Jersey’s consumer fraud law by claiming their counseling services could cure clients of being gay, according to the lawsuit. The plaintiffs are three young men who were harmed by the practice and two parents who paid for JONAH’s conversion therapy. The therapy can cost more than $10,000 a year.

Plaintiffs Benjamin Unger and Chaim Levin, who are Jewish, struggled to come to terms with their homosexuality, reports The Guardian:

Benjamin Unger told the court in Jersey City how he recalled the delight he felt in 2007 when, as a confused gay 19-year-old who had grown up in a strict Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, he was assured by the gay-conversion group Jonah that there was a solution to his predicament.

Similarly, The Atlantic reports how Levin and his family hoped that JONAH’s “weekly group and individual therapy sessions,” would help him become straight after he was kicked out of religious school for revealing his sexual orientation.

The case focuses on the conversion “methods” of Levin and Unger’s “life-coach” at JONAH, Alan Downing, which are tantamount to abuse, reports The Atlantic:

For one session that reportedly cost $100, Downing asked Levin to stand in front of a full-length mirror. According to court documents, Downing told Levin to say a negative thing about himself and remove an article of clothing with each criticism. When he was fully naked, Levin alleges that Downing told him to touch his penis and his buttocks. Eventually, Downing said “good,” and the session ended. Downing allegedly tried similar nudity-based methods on other JONAH clients.

According to The Atlantic, JONAH asserts that same-sex attraction is “caused by overly strong attachments to women or insufficient platonic male friendships.” Unger detailed how Downing’s methods reflected this belief:

Downing gave him a pillow and, instructing him to imagine the pillow as his mother, told Unger to hit it with a tennis racket over and over while screaming “mom.” Unger did so, until his hands were raw. Downing told Unger to go the Jewish ritual bath, the mikvah, with his father, Unger testified, and to look at his father’s penis. In so-called “healthy touch” group sessions, Downing allegedly told Unger and his other young, gay clients to touch and cuddle with those in the group they were attracted to—apparently to learn the difference between sexual and non-sexual affection.

David Dinielli, the deputy legal director at SPLC said, “Groups like JONAH should not be allowed to use bogus therapy, based on junk science, to scam LGBT people and their families out of thousands of dollars.” The SPLC states:

Conversion therapy has, in fact, been discredited or highly criticized by virtually all major American medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional counseling organizations. People who have undergone the therapy have reported increased anxiety, depression, and in some cases, suicidal ideation.

Levin, for instance, suffered from depression and even attempted suicide. (According to Vice, the province of Ontario, Canada unanimously passed legislature this week that outlaws gay-conversion therapy on people under the age of 18 because of its correlation with teen suicides.)

Last month, Oregon, passed a bill banning gay conversion therapy, joining California, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., which passed similar legislature. The American Psychological Association has “repudiated” the practice, while President Obama has also “condemned” it.

Jas Chana is a former intern at Tablet.