Four gay men and two mothers of gay men filed a lawsuit in a New Jersey court on Tuesday charging a Jewish counseling organization with committing fraud by “falsely” promising to convert the men from gay to straight through a controversial practice known as conversion therapy.
An attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is representing the plaintiffs, said the lawsuit is a first of its kind case seeking to invoke a state anti-fraud statute to stop an organization and its counselor-therapists from performing the therapy.
The lawsuit charges the Jersey City, N.J., based Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH); its founder Arthur Goldberg; and an affiliated counselor who performs conversation therapy on the group’s clients, Alan Downing, with violating the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act.
“JONAH profits off of shameful and dangerous attempts to fix something that isn’t broken,” said Christine P. Sun, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “Despite the consensus of mainstream professional organizations that conversion therapy doesn’t work, this racket continues to scam vulnerable gay men and lesbians out of thousands of dollars and inflicts significant harm on them.”
JONAH, Goldberg, and Downing engaged in “unconscionable practices, deception, fraud, false pretenses, false promises, [and] misrepresentations” against the plaintiffs in flagrant violation of the fraud statute, the lawsuit charges.
It argues that virtually all established metal health experts, including leaders of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association, have called conversion therapy harmful to the mental health of patients and ineffective in changing someone’s sexual orientation.
Despite these findings, which are based on longstanding scientific research, JONAH subjected the four gay clients to a form of therapy that caused them to suffer emotional and psychological distress, depression, and for one of the plaintiffs, thoughts of suicide, according to the lawsuit.
In a statement released Tuesday morning, SPLC said JONAH was formerly known as Jews Offering New Alternatives for Homosexuality. The statement says JONAH founder Goldberg, a former Wall Street executive and attorney, was convicted of three counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy to defraud the federal government before he founded JONAH. The statement says “Goldberg was ultimately disbarred from being an attorney.”
Neither Goldberg nor another JONAH spokesperson could immediately be reached for comment on the lawsuit.
On its website, JONAH describes itself as “a non-profit international organization dedicated to educating the worldwide Jewish community about the social, cultural and emotional factors which lead to same-sex attractions.”
The JONAH website adds, “JONAH works directly with those struggling with unwanted same-sex attractions (SSA) and with families whose loved ones are involved in homosexuality.”
SPLC attorney Sam Wolf said the lawsuit also represents the first time former patients of a group conducting conversion therapy and their parents are seeking a refund of the fees they paid for the therapy and reimbursement of the costs of conventional psychotherapy treatment needed to reverse the harmful effects of the conversion therapy.
Three of the four former JONAH clients who are plaintiffs in the case – Benjamin Unger, Chaim Levin, and Sheldon Bruck – were raised in Orthodox Jewish families, Wolf said. He said the fourth plaintiff, Michael Ferguson, is Mormon as is defendant Downing.
Unger, Levin, and Bruck currently live in New York City. Ferguson, a former New York City resident, currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“They especially target the Orthodox Jewish community in particular but you don’t have to be of any specific religion or anything at all,” said Wolf in discussing JONAH’s alleged practices. “They’ll take pretty much anybody who comes and sort of agrees to pay the money and follow the program.”
Also named as plaintiffs in the case are Levin’s mother, Bella Levin, and Bruck’s mother, Jo Bruck. The suit says the two mothers were harmed, among other things, for having to pay the fees for their sons’ conversion therapy sessions, which came to thousands of dollars.
In Bruck’s case, the suit says Jo Bruck should be compensated for having to pay for “legitimate mental health services that her son required to overcome damage caused by defendants’ ‘treatments.’”
Therapy sessions included nudity, beating mothers in ‘effigy’
The lawsuit provides a glimpse into some of the specific techniques the JONAH counselors used in their effort to convert the gay plaintiffs into heterosexuals, claiming the techniques instead were damaging to the men’s self-esteem.
JONAH counselors instructed at least three of the gay plaintiffs to remove their clothes during a therapy session while standing in front of a mirror, for the stated purpose of boosting their sense of masculinity by admiring their bodies, the lawsuit says.
“During a private session in or about October 2008 [for] then-teenaged Levin, Downing initiated a discussion about Levin’s body and instructed Levin to stand in front of a full-length mirror and hold a staff,” the lawsuit says. “Downing directed Levin to say one negative thing about himself, remove an article of clothing, then repeat the process. Although Levin protested and expressed discomfort, at Downing’s insistence, Levin submitted and continued until he was fully naked,” the lawsuit states.
“Downing then instructed Levin to touch his penis and then his buttocks. Levin, unsure what to do but trusting in and relying on Downing, followed the instructions, upon which Downing said ‘good’ and the session ended,” says the lawsuit.
The suit says JONAH counselors often claimed that a main cause of male homosexuality is “the failure of mothers to maintain “appropriate boundaries” with their sons.
“On one occasion, Downing instructed plaintiff Unger to beat an effigy of his mother with a tennis racket as though killing her, and encouraged Unger to scream at his mother while beating her in effigy,” the lawsuit says.
“Sadly, there is no accountability for those who practice conversion therapy,” said plaintiff Ferguson in a statement on Tuesday. “They play blindly with deep emotions and create an immense amount of self-doubt for the client. They seize on your personal vulnerability, and tell you that being gay is synonymous with being less of a man. They further misrepresent themselves as having the key to your new orientation.”
The suit calls on the Hudson County, N.J., Superior Court to declare that the “acts of defendants constitute multiple instances of unlawful practices in violation of the Consumer Fraud Act” and to order the revocation of JONAH’s business license.
The lawsuit also asks the court to permanently enjoin the defendants and JONAH’s “officers, directors, founders, managers, agents, servants, employees, representatives, independent contractors and all other persons or entities directly under their control, from engaging in, continuing to engage in or doing any acts or practices in violation of the Consumer Fraud Act, including, but not limited to, the acts and practices alleged in this complaint.”
It makes these additional requests of the court:
-The assessment of restitution amounts to plaintiffs for “all of their payments to defendants for individual and group conversion therapy.”
-The assessment of restitution amounts to plaintiffs for reasonable costs of repairing damage resulting from defendants’ unlawful acts.
-The “assessment against defendants, jointly and severally, of treble plaintiffs’ ascertainable losses.”
-The assessment of costs to cover the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is being assisted in its filing of the lawsuit on a pro bono basis by two New York law firms — Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP and Lite DePalma Greenberg, LLC, who are serving as co-counsels in the case.