Porn, Pain and Guilt: Religious Homosexual Israelis Recount 'Conversion Therapy'

Told to punish and even endanger themselves when they had 'improper' thoughts, after the firestorm ignited by the education minister, religious homosexuals tell Haaretz about their trauma

A demonstration in Tel Aviv against Israeli Education Minister Rafi Peretz, due to his remarks in favor of sexual conversion therapy, July 14, 2019
Ofer Vaknin

N., a pupil at a boarding-school yeshiva in Jerusalem, was sent for gay conversion therapy at the end of 9th grade. He had told a rabbi about his attraction to men, and against his explicit wishes, the Orthodox yeshiva summoned his parents for a talk with a guidance counselor. N., who is today 28, hadn’t wanted them to know and was humiliated. “We didn’t talk about sensitive things in our household, certainly not sexual matters,” he tells Haaretz now.

Back at the yeshiva, the counselor said he knew a psychologist who handled such cases, and that N.'s condition was treatable. His parents agreed to pay for the sessions.

N. was reliving those painful memories due to the heated debate that was ignited Saturday by remarks by Israel’s new education minister, Rafi Peretz, recommending conversion therapy for LGBTQ individuals.

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N. remembers that he walked to the first meeting with the therapist and when he arrived, “the man asked me, ‘If I didn’t offer you a glass of cold water when you got here, but you were very thirsty, would you ask for one?’ I said 'yes.' ‘If so, you have masculine characteristics. You should keep that I mind,’” he recalls the therapist telling him.

The therapist recommended that N. watch pornography, saying it was permissible according to halakha (traditional Jewish law) because it was for the sake of a mitzvah. He then asked N. intimate questions which embarrassed him.

“I didn’t want to answer,” says N. “I was a religious boy, studying at a yeshiva. I didn’t want to talk about such matters. But he kept pressing, saying my parents were paying a lot of money for the therapy and it was a shame I wouldn’t cooperate.” The therapist also advised N. to wear a rubber band on his wrist and to stretch and snap it every time he felt attraction to a man.

N. left the meeting upset, went back to the yeshiva, packed his bags and went to stay with his married sister. He had no intention of returning. But due to his parents’ pressure, he did go back to school and to therapy some time later.

“The therapist asked me if I did the rubber band thing. I said no. He said the whole idea was to cause pain so the brain grasps that sexual attraction is bad. By the next week I had a rubber band on my wrist. At first it worked, but I got used to the pain and the effect diminished.”

Then N. began to harm himself; burning himself with hot water, cutting his skin: “I became addicted to pain. I saw it as a sort of deliverance, if it can be called that. A type of solution.” Finally, N. drank bleach, diluted in water, and was rushed to the hospital.

Israeli Education Minister Rafi Peretz at a press conference in Tel Aviv, July 11, 2019
Ofer Vaknin

The yeshiva denied the whole incident and at the end of 11th grade, N. was expelled. He transferred to another high-school yeshiva in central Israel, where he learned that his former headmaster had told the new one the whole story.

“I was afraid they would send me for therapy again,” he says, but things were different this time: The new principal visited his home and made sure N. understood that he would now be accepted as he was.

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After high school N. went to a hesder yeshiva (which combines religious studies and military service), spoke of his sexual orientation among widening circles of students and teachers, and began attending meetings of the Israel Gay Youth NGO.

The hesder yeshiva’s attitude was mixed, he recalls: “On the one hand, the head of the yeshiva said that he would not judge me and that I had a place in his school. On the other hand, he asked me not to talk about the subject publicly because it could hurt the yeshiva’s image.”

Years later, N. can understand the man’s position: The hesder yeshiva fought for every pupil and didn’t need a label of that sort, he says. Dealing with homosexuality at such an institution wasn't common back then.

N. adds that he also tried, after years, to track down the therapist he saw, an accredited psychologist, but failed. “Encouraging a person who hates himself to self-harm is like giving a drunk the wheel,” he says now.

Conversations Haaretz has been holding with gay religious organizations confirm that the methods N. describes were accepted at the time: They included recommendations to watch porn and go to the beach to see scantily clad women, and conditioning to associate the attraction to men with revulsion and pain.

Shay Bramson, today an activist with the religious gay organization Havruta, knows about such practices: Almost 20 years ago he underwent similar treatment. Unlike N., however, at 13, coming from a religious family in Netanya, he took that path voluntarily, more or less.

Israelis demonstrate near Moshav Naveh against Education Minister Rafi Peretz, where he lives, against his comments in favor of sexual conversion therapy, July 14, 2019
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“I was observant and knew God didn’t like it, and it needed changing,” Bramson says of his attraction to men. He secretly contacted an organization that agreed to help him without telling his parents, and it referred him to a clinical psychologist, a religious university professor.

“He told me immediately that I was a minor so it was illegal, and that he would deny treating me [if asked]. But that suited me because I wanted to keep it secret,” Bramson recalls.

The professor treated him for three years. “The therapy had several components. One related to the parents: a masculine mother and absent father, childhood trauma – generally, an attempt to impose a narrative that wasn’t true,” he says.

The behavioral element involved watching porn involving women, masturbating, and self-punishment for thinking about boys. The third part involved confronting his strong feelings of guilt and accepting that it was all a matter of choice, which could be controlled if he so wished.

Bramson: “He would tell me: You decide if you want to be normal and religious, or to be a secular homo who lives in Tel Aviv in a reality of wantonness and venereal disease.”

Organizational efforts

More than a decade after the experiences Bramson and N. underwent, discourse about homosexuality in religious Zionist society in Israel has changed beyond recognition. Havruta was founded in 2007 and acts openly to raise awareness and tolerance of Orthodox LGBTQ individuals. A similar organization is Bat Kol, founded by religious lesbians in 2005.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Atzat Nefesh, founded by ultra-Orthodox rabbi Shlomo Aviner in the early 2000s, which supports conversion treatment for religious men and boys. It suggests that those with the bad luck to feel attraction to other men “re-confront the issue of masculinity and learn about the correct combination of masculinity and femininity.”

Over the years, however, it appears that Atzat Nefesh has been losing its clout. Indeed, suggesting conversion therapy for homosexuality is unthinkable today among wide swathes of the religious Zionist community in the country. Moreover, in 2017 the organization took a body blow when a therapist working with it was accused of molesting patients. He accepted a plea bargain in early 2019.

“Atzat Nefesh isn’t mainstream any more,” says E., who works with Havruta.

Since the Health Ministry issued a warning against conversion therapy in 2014, E. explains, organizations supporting or providing that very thing have changed their modus operandi: They have altered their therapeutic directives, removing pain and watching porn; in many ways, their therapy even resembles ordinary psychological treatment today. But the problem isn’t just methodology: mainly, it’s the goal.

“We hear of sessions where the narrative is that you’re not changing because you’re not trying hard enough,” says E. “The patient is blamed for not changing” his sexual orientation. Often, the psychological therapy that's given is goal-oriented – with no deadline or clear criteria: It continues until the "desired result" is achieved. And the more conventional the practices seem, the harder they are to fight.

Rabbis and teachers at religious institutions may be less and less likely to send boys to undergo such therapy, but now teenagers are showing up on their own accord. “As a teenager, I didn’t want to be gay either,” E. confesses.

Thus, Havruta invests less energy in fighting conversion therapy these days, and more and more in public relations.

E.: “I prefer to explain to teenagers that it’s possible to be a happy religious gay person, and one can even have a religious gay family. We want to show them that there’s no point in [conversion] therapy, not only because it causes harm but also because one can lead a good life without it.”

True confessions

The problems mentioned here aren’t just the domain of gay men who wear yarmulkes: Religious lesbians are also subject to pressure to undergo conversion therapy. Following Minister Peretz’s comments Saturday, a few of these women shared their stories about such pressure, with Haaretz.

“I all starts when a young girl confesses her attraction” to other girls, says Tehila Atias Bassa, director of Bat Kol. “It includes questions like, are you sure? Maybe it isn’t true? Let’s go to the rabbi, he’ll talk with you,” she says.

One woman describes how her parents took her to a rabbi, who tried to convince her that her sexual taste was the result of some imaginary neurotic phenomenon. Realizing she was adamant about it, however, pressure ensued and she was told: It’s a sin, an abomination, a capitulation to lust and God forbids it.

But the situation has improved. “The religious Zionist community has been dealing with the subject a great deal in recent years,” says Hadas Benayahu, director of Shoval, an organization that works to increase awareness of and tolerance for homosexuality in Orthodox society.

“A decade ago, the phrase ‘religious gay’ hardly existed," she explains. "Today it’s very much there.”

There, but not across the board: There is a wide gap between older people who have difficulty grappling with LGBTQ issues, and the younger generation, who feel it can all be taken for granted.

Still, the picture is changing. Shoval representatives have visited more than 60 towns, kibbutzim and religious communities in cities, to which they were invited in order to talk about their lives as religious gay individuals, notes Benayahu. Some 2,500 people came to meet them and hear about their experiences first-hand.

Religious schools have also been changing. Since 2017, the Education Ministry has budgeted funds to cover activities on gender and sexual identity. Local LGBTQ groups have sent representatives to address pupils (for free). Some religious institutions even organize talks with the teaching staff – not just the students.

However, one important school that had invited Shoval's representatives to hold a series of meetings with its teachers canceled after a single session, after information about it was leaked.

Evidence of the sensitivity and political volatility surrounding this issue can be seen in a storm-in-a-teacup incident that took place last week, concerning a conference about LGBTQ youth for teachers organized by the religious education desk at the Education Ministry. Originally the conference was supposed to be about “inclusion of" homosexual children in “our educational institutions,” but after pressure from the conservative organization Liba, the word “inclusion of” was replaced with “attitudes toward" such individuals. The content of the conference, however, did not change.

Representatives of Shoval are still being invited to speak at religious schools, says Benayahu, herself a graduate of the Sha'alavim for Women yeshiva in Jerusalem.

“Nobody would believe me if I told them what schools I’ve been to,” she adds. ”There is a great fear about ‘what people will say,’ so they ask that we keep our visit secret. But the willingness to meet us exists.”

There are some religious schools that do openly invite the organization and even publish as much on their websites and social media, she notes.

Yet there are still many institutions for both of the sexes where change in this regard is nowhere near, and the mere mention of the existence of religious gay and lesbian individuals is problematic. "Because," Benayahu explains, "it would mean that [the school] is accepting an identity that it must not accept.”

Such schools still send teenagers to conversion therapy, she says. The situation may not be like it was a decade ago, but the substance remains: recommendations for dubious therapy in which the therapist isn’t looking out for the person’s greater good, but has one purpose, and one only: to change his or her sexual orientation.