A New Jersey judge ordered on Friday the closure of the only Jewish gay conversion therapy organization in the United States, which was found guilty of consumer fraud in June.
Judge Peter F. Bariso ruled that within thirty days, JONAH, Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing – the 'H' stood for 'Homosexuality' until 2011– must shut down. Since the previous verdict, the organization had been forbidden from “engaging, whether directly or through referrals, in any therapy, counseling, treatment or activity” and now, JONAH is no more.
In addition to shutting down, JONAH must remove its websites and online listservs, often used as a support system for Jewish gay men trying to become straight. JONAH will also have to liquidate its assets and permanently dissolve as a corporate entity within six months.
“I’m hopeful that this will be an important step in making sure that no one is ever harmed by conversion therapy again,” said Chaim Levin, 26, one of the plaintiffs in the law suit, who initially believed JONAH could help him go from gay to straight. Levin was raised in an ultra-Orthodox family and entered JONAH’s program at 18.
His mother, Bella, another plaintiff, testified about JONAH’s harm and false promises. “It was a mistake on my part that I did not question [JONAH director Arthur] Goldberg too much,” she testified at trial. “He was just a really good salesman.”
The jury who found Goldberg, his co-director Elaine Berk, and counselor Alan Downing, guilty agreed: “The defense just wasn’t there,” said a juror. “The [type of therapy] just wasn’t right, it's just not something that’s therapy.” He added: “Mr. Goldberg was a salesman and he lured them in.”
In November 2012, JONAH, was sued on two counts of consumer fraud by three of the organization’s former clients, and two mothers of former clients. Plaintiffs contended that the defendants made gross misrepresentations in the sale and advertisement of JONAH's program, and that its commercial practices were unconscionable.
David Dinielli, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy organization specializing in civil rights litigation representing the plaintiffs, presented a simple argument: “My clients needed help, but JONAH lied and JONAH made it worse.” They contended that the group misrepresented the program by claiming that it was scientifically based; that it had specific success rates and could adjust a person’s sexual orientation in two to five years.
The trial illuminated the therapeutic methods that JONAH employed, including cuddling, naked all-male weekend retreats in the woods, and beating effigies of their mothers, as different plaintiffs testified over the course of three weeks.
Benjamin 'Benjy' Unger, then 27, painfully described what some would consider bizarre and often damaging treatments — including beating an effigy of his mother and screaming "Mom" until his hands were raw — in hopes that he would become straight.
Goldberg often signed his emails off as "Dr.," though he is not one. "I’m a juris doctor,” he explained in court. He is also not a licensed therapist or counselor of any kind.
The defense claimed that the methods—including the “Journey into Manhood” weekends—were scientific and did in fact help clients of JONAH who “put in the work.” JONAH brought in witnesses to testify to the success of these exercises. One witness testified to having a happy sex life, but also acknowledged having problems in having sexual relations with his wife. When the jury was not in the courtroom, the judge responded to a defense witness by saying, “Frankly, I don’t even know how this was a success story.”
JONAH’s legal team, led by Charles LiMandri, president of the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, a legal advocacy nonprofit with a mission to “defend religious freedom,” argued “JONAH has a right to their beliefs.” The defense also argued that none of the plaintiffs stayed for the full length of the program, and as such, it is difficult for them to claim that the treatment didn’t work.
After three weeks of testimonies and just two and a half hours in deliberations, a seven person jury awarded the five plaintiffs $72,400 in damages, which will serve to reimburse the plaintiff’s payments to the organization, and for the ensuing therapy they sought out in response to the trauma caused by the JONAH program. The ruling, which was issued days before the U.S. Supreme Court decision to legalize same sex marriage, could cripple the nationwide business of gay conversion therapy.
Conversion therapy is banned for minors in California, Oregon, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.; furthermore, 18 states have introduced legislation aimed at prohibiting gay conversion therapy for minors.
In April, U.S. President Barack Obama publicly supported a nationwide ban against conversion therapy, and in 2013, New Jersey Governor and current Republican Presidential candidate Chris Christie outlawed conversion therapy for minors, even by licensed mental health professionals (which JONAH's counselors were not). This suit is another step in the direction of banning the practice in the United States.
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