Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), an organization devoted to helping boost “self-esteem and masculinity” to reduce homosexual inclinations, was recently forced to shut its doors in the U.S. after a trial in which it was determined that its operations were little more than “consumer fraud.”
That apparently has not stopped JONAH, specifically designed to operate within the Orthodox Jewish world, from operating its brand of conversion therapy: it has recently made a new home in Israel.0
This is in spite of the fact that there have been dozens of peer reviewed research articles indicating that conversion therapy, an amalgam of so-called therapeutic interventions allegedly designed and targeted to convert homosexual individuals to a heterosexual lifestyle, are useless at best and more likely, dangerous. Despite one very biased, limited and discredited study, the overwhelming proof, as substantiated by all the major health and mental health professional organizations worldwide, shows that undergoing conversion therapy can lead to a host of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, suicidality and more.
Undaunted, there are still adherents who insist that a person born gay can become hetero if they simply follow their charade of conversion therapy. Some advocates continue to bemoan the loss of the JONAH program in the U.S., not for the pain that conversion therapy caused participants, but for the alleged benefits of a totally unsound program, and they persist in claiming it helps Orthodox Jews in Israel to 'convert' to a heterosexual lifestyle.
Conversion therapy believers tend to be Orthodox, and use religious doctrine to support their positions decrying scientific evidence disproving their efforts as false and misleading. They often conflate religious rules against the practice of homosexuality with the desire to “cure” something that is simply not curable.
Homosexuality according to halakha [Jewish religious law] is a to'aivah [an 'abomination']. That puts a tremendous burden on religious people who are gay to either deny their sexuality or hide it if they wish to remain within the Orthodox community, whether Modern, Yeshivish or Hareidi. To'aivah, however, does not mean that sexuality can be converted. If an individual is homosexual that is not a disease to be fixed but a life issue to be dealt with. But not for those in the broader Orthodox religious world who see a mission in gay conversion.
For the sake of argument, though, in terms of assessing the 'efficacy' of conversion therapy and whether it's an answer for the dilemma of gay Orthodox Jews, let’s put aside the research evidence indicating that conversion therapy causes mental harm. For some people it is much easier and more meaningful to put aside data and statistics and take a simple look at outcomes.
Performing an outcome evaluation is not quite as complex as setting up a study with control groups and, when possible, randomization. To follow outcome you simply track the process over time to determine if the people you have worked with achieve and maintain their goals. There is no direct need to compare them to others to determine statistical significance on things like rates of mental illness. Outcome analysis is a relatively effective technique that yields data which can, after the fact, be compared to other groups if there is a need. It is hard to argue with outcomes when they are simply a follow up of information about people over a period of time.
An easy outcome study for conversion therapy would be to evaluate if, following the so-called treatment, a person can live a heterosexual life. That information now exists.
Outcome data of close to 2,000 individuals who had undergone conversion therapy and subsequently married indicates that over 60% admitted to cheating on their spouse with a homosexual liaison some as often as every week, or month, others only once a year. Regardless of the frequency this indicates the failure of conversion therapy, compounded by the fact that many of these marriages are now ending in divorce. These numbers are staggering. More significantly, they put truth to the lie about the efficacy of conversion therapy.
This finding offers an important lesson beyond homosexuality and conversion therapy. Outcome studies offer a methodology to address the inviolability of truth and how we can arrive at it within the context of religion and reality.
This is not a question of cynicism or mindless criticism. If we know that something is not real, does not work or is harmful why should we allow it to be perpetuated? When someone tells me, for example, that they know of a fail-safe shadchan [matchmaker] I ask for outcome information. A foolproof or fail-safe shadchan would be someone who had good outcomes. We could set up a study of shadchanim and compare who makes more matches or we could do an outcome evaluation and see how many of the matches made result in lasting marriages. If a shadchan’s system works, outcome information would validate it.
It was not that long ago that I first publicly presented data on the frequency of sexual abuse in our community. I was told by some that my data was inaccurate. Not unlike the conversion therapy issue, I was also told that in a religious world there is no abuse. Some continue to suggest that abuse is an extremely rare occurrence heightened only by attention seekers. Yet, as more individuals feel freer to report the abuse they suffered the outcome data is incontrovertible. Abuse does exist in all of our communities.
Instead of denying or obfuscating to support an erroneous belief we should use outcome information that is available. It is a cruel mistake to foster inaccuracies on those who are harmed by them. Reality and belief need not differ if there is a compassionate approach that is supported by reliability and honesty. The Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox organization of rabbis, has stated “individuals with homosexual inclinations should be treated with the care and concern appropriate to all human beings. As Rabbis we recognize the acute and painful challenges faced by homosexual Jews in their quest to remain connected and faithful to God and tradition. We urge those Orthodox Jews with homosexual tendencies to seek counsel from their Rabbis. Equally, we urge all Rabbis to show compassion to all those who approach them.”
The interpretation of halakha requires a compassion that is based on the reality of the individual. We can only hope that this compassion is true and born out by subsequent action. Forcing someone into “therapy” that is fraudulent and potentially deleterious, a marriage that is farcical or excluding them from their community is heartless.
Dr. Michael J. Salamon is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the author of numerous articles and books, most recently “Abuse in the Jewish Community” (Urim Publications).
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