NEW YORK – Conversion therapy – the range of controversial psychological treatments aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation – has been pushed to the sidelines in America in the past decade. Indeed, 15 U.S. states banned the use of this therapy on minors after the American Psychiatric Association stated that it is ineffective and even dangerous.
Nevertheless, the recent appointment of conservative judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court has reignited a series of battles over so-called Christian causes, including support of the controversial therapy. Unlike previous efforts, spearheaded by evangelical Christians or Mormons, at the heart of current legal drama is an unlikely protagonist: a Jewish psychologist from Brooklyn, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Chabad movement. The psychologist is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a well-known Christian organization that in the past took its battles against LGBTQ rights all the way to the Supreme Court.
Dr. David Schwartz recently sued the City of New York, arguing that its ban on conversion therapy violates his religion and deprives his patients of the ability to live their lives according to the laws of the Torah.
Schwartz’s lawsuit claims that the prohibition violates both freedom of expression and freedom of religion, and argues that it intervenes in an unethical way in the treatment he offers his ultra-Orthodox patients. A significant portion of the suit is devoted to explaining why the ban clashes with the Jewish values that underlie his therapeutic methods.
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Its central argument, however, is that ultra-Orthodox patients who go to Schwartz do so of their own volition, due to their own religious beliefs, and they shouldn’t be prevented from having their sexual orientation altered if they believe that this will help them lead an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle.
“Dr. Schwartz and almost all of his patients are members of the Orthodox Jewish community,” the lawsuit says. “Both his patients’ personal goals and Dr. Schwartz’s counsel are often informed by views about human nature and the nature of a life well lived that are grounded in their Jewish faith and Torah teachings.”
“In Dr. Schwartz’s general psychotherapeutic practice, he encounters patients with concerns relating to sexuality, among a wide range of other issues. Dr. Schwartz’s approach to psychotherapy seeks to help patients achieve goals with respect to themselves and their relationships that they choose for themselves. Dr. Schwartz works only with willing patients – patients who voluntarily walk into his office and talk with him because they want and value his counsel. And Dr. Schwartz does nothing to or with his patients other than listen to them and talk with them,” it adds.
Schwartz, who has been working in the ultra-Orthodox community for 40 years, is known as an enthusiastic advocate of conversion therapy, even as the Orthodox world is beginning to abandon the practice.
“Gay conversion therapists like Dr. Schwartz don’t talk about all the former patients they traumatized,” said Mordechai Levovitz, who himself was raised in an ultra-Orthodox family in New York but is now executive director of the American organization Jewish Queer Youth, which supports Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox members of the LGBTQ community. “Truth is, Dr. Schwartz has no expertise in this matter, because his patients end up being traumatized. He says his patients are so happy? Well, I know many of his ex-patients, and they are not.”
Added Levovitz: “Many of the teens and young adults who come to JQY for support, need support because of the trauma their conversion therapist in the Orthodox world has caused them.”
These individuals are seeking therapy, Levovitz explained, “to heal the wound that was inflicted by these very folks. It’s the notion that they are gay or bi because something is wrong with them, and the only reason they continue to be gay or bi is because they don’t want to change enough. This adds blame into the equation. It’s bad enough that they feel shamed and ostracized by their community! Then they go to a therapist, who says: It’s your own fault, because you are not trying hard enough to change! Now we all know science says change is impossible. These therapists are setting their patients up to fail. And not only are they setting them up to fail, they set their patients up to blame themselves for this failure.”
An act of fraud
Chaim Levin, who was brought up and educated in the same Chabad community in Brooklyn where Schwartz works today, is very familiar with the personal price paid by ultra-Orthodox people who undergo conversion therapy. In 2012, Levin sued JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing), the largest conversion therapy organization in the American Jewish community, for consumer fraud.
Like thousands of other ultra-Orthodox teens over the years, Levin, who is now 28, was sent to JONAH for therapy; he was 18 at the time. At the trial, which shocked America’s Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities, he and other former patients testified about abusive practices in which JONAH engaged.
Patients said they were asked to strip in the presence of other patients and staff members. On weekends in the forest, they underwent “group therapy,” during which they were blindfolded while staff members shouted threatening things at them. They were forced to strip in front of a mirror and say humiliating things about their bodies. They were told to hug staff members while naked.
In December 2015, the court found JONAH guilty of consumer fraud and ordered the organization to shut down – a verdict that proved to be groundbreaking in the battle against conversion therapy.
In an interview with Haaretz, Levin vehemently rejected Schwartz’s claim that his patients turn to him because they want to become heterosexual.
“I say, when people come to you for help – help them, don’t hurt them,” said Levin. “He is telling them things that are fundamentally untrue. Even talk therapy can be harmful, especially if you are saying things that are not in line with modern-day science. We have regulations and rules for a reason; we don’t want people to commit fraud. And at the end of the day, what he is attempting to do is impossible.”
Nevertheless, Schwartz’s battle seems to be gaining momentum, and his lawsuit could have an impact far beyond the bounds of New York’s ultra-Orthodox community. In recent months, Christian groups that support conversion therapy have launched a campaign to make it legal again, and they hope the ultra-Orthodox psychologist from Brooklyn will bring them the victory they need.
The Alliance Defending Freedom waged one of the most talked-about legal battles in the United States last year. It represented evangelical baker Jack Phillips, owner of the Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado, who refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple on the grounds that doing so would violate his Christian faith. Now, ADF is hoping that the lawsuit of its ultra-Orthodox client will succeed where other legal efforts by Christians have failed and bring the issue of conversion therapy to the Supreme Court. There, they hope to find an attentive ear in Kavanaugh, the newest justice.
“This is part of a greater trend of Christian evangelicals co-opting Jewish spaces,” Levovitz told Haaretz. “You see it in many spaces. Rabbis and people like Dr. Schwartz are influenced by a fundamental extremist Christian lobby, and it’s happening in many areas of Judaism. And Jews like Dr. Schwartz are victims of the proselytizing of an extremely powerful Christian movement.”
Both Levovitz and Levin, who are prominent activists against conversion therapy, are worried about the possible impact of Schwartz’s lawsuit.
“There were many similar cases, both in New Jersey and California, when they passed these laws [the bans on conversion therapy]. They all failed,” Levovitz told Haaretz. “What I am worried about is one of these cases being appealed and going to the Supreme Court, a Trump-packed Supreme Court. I do not trust Justice Clarence Thomas or Justice Brett Kavanaugh to rule on issues of sexuality. These are not people who have shown moral strength in these issues. Because of that, I’m worried that this particular case [Schwartz’s] could end up with a bad ruling from the court.”
Altogether, 15 U.S. states and 50 cities have banned the use of conversion therapy on minors in recent years. Last week, another such law passed Colorado’s House of Representatives, and if it also makes it through the state Senate, Colorado will become the 16th state to support the prohibition.
Even though American opponents of conversion therapy have racked up legislative successes and mounted successful public campaigns, conversion therapy is still affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. According to a study published last year by the University of California-L.A., 698,000 American adults have undergone conversion therapy at some point in their lives, including 350,000 who did so as adolescents.
In the coming years, the study predicted, another 20,000 or so adolescents are expected to undergo conversion therapy in states where it is still legal. And on top of the fact that leaders of certain religious communities refer members of their flocks to psychologists who practice this therapy, the researchers added, another 57,000 adolescents are expected to undergo conversion therapy at the hand of religious and spiritual leaders themselves over the next few years.
In Israel, incidentally, the Knesset rejected a bill sponsored by MK Yael German that would have banned conversion therapy on minors, in 2017.