JONAH, the Largest Jewish Gay Conversion Therapy Organization, Takes its Last Breath

Chaim Levin, 26, grew up in Ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. “For people here, gays don’t exist. There aren’t gays in Crown Heights; there are gays in the Village.” Levin went through gay conversion therapy at JONAH, where he was told to strip naked while saying disparaging things about himself, among other pseudo-scientific therapy exercises. Zack Baddorf for Newsweek

A therapist’s notes can contain the most horrifying, embarrassing and mundane confessions of his client, the rawest of fears and most guarded of feelings, from sexual desires to homicidal impulses. The key to a good therapy session is that what is said behind that closed door is honest, unfiltered and, like confessions to a priest, completely private. Confidential. A therapist’s notes are not written to be seen by others, much less projected on a screen in a room full of strangers. But on a Thursday afternoon in June, Benjy Unger was in the witness box as notes from one of his therapy sessions were blown up on a monitor next to the jury. The goal of that counseling was to turn Unger from gay to straight.

Unger and all the people in that Jersey City, New Jersey, courtroom were not shocked by what they were seeing, but they were clearly perplexed. In the middle of one notebook page, Unger’s therapist, Alan Downing, had drawn a stick figure with a bulging gluteus maximus, annotated with truncated phrases—“butt = I am cute,” “play with me” and “fluffy butt.” Below the stick figure, he had written, “Explored his attraction to male butts. Could be dominance, vulnerability, innocence, connection.”

This drawing was put into evidence as Unger, now 28, was questioned by David Dinielli, a senior attorney in a legal team representing Unger, his friend Chaim Levin, 26, and two other young men. All four were treated at JONAH, the only Jewish gay conversion therapy organization in the country. Three of the four had sessions with Downing, who has no psychology degree or mental health license of any kind, nor any higher education outside of an undergraduate degree in music and theater. Despite that thin resume, Arthur Goldberg, the man who started and still runs JONAH, often boasted that Downing was “an expert in the field” of turning gay men straight. Like many conversion therapists, Downing claims he has been “cured” of homosexuality, or, in the jargon preferred by the industry, he has “overcome” his “unwanted SSA,” same-sex attraction. (JONAH's legal team declined to comment for this article.)

Dinielli [ pointing to the “fluffy butt” slide ]: “Do you know what that is?”

Unger : “These are not my words. I do not really know what that is about.”

Dinielli : “What percentage of sessions that you had with Alan Downing would you estimate involved discussing particular body parts that you found attractive?”

Unger : “Specific body parts? I would say around 80 to 90 percent.”

12_18_JewishGayConversion_04 Benjy Unger, now 28, was told to cut off contact with his mother while he was in JONAH's gay conversion therapy, because Alan Downing deemed their relationship "too close." He was also told to beat a pillow effigy of his mother with a tennis racket until his hands bled, screaming “Mom!” with each blow. Zack Baddorf for Newsweek

Downing seemed obsessed with Unger’s sexual proclivities during their sessions. One of his notes included a matrix of all the men Unger found attractive, paired with detailed notes about their physical characteristics. “Smooth skinned, no facial, attracted to buttocks,” Downing wrote next to one man’s name.

Later, in his office, Downing would ask Unger to strip naked. He would frolic in a field, naked too, with people he was supposed to be “healing.” He would ask other men to hold each other in darkened rooms. It was all part of the therapy, practiced on tens of thousands of young men in the U.S. and abroad, by a wide network of “life coaches” like Downing.

For years, very little was known about these methods. When Dinielli joined the Southern Poverty Law Center from a high-powered corporate law firm, he knew he would be working to end gay conversion therapy—one of the firm’s stated goals—but he had no idea how shoddy and sordid the practice was. The deeper they looked, he says, the darker it got. He’d known gay-conversion is a cruel fraud, but he hadn’t realized how deeply perverse it is. “I hadn’t necessarily conceived of it as something so akin to child abuse and sexual abuse,” he says, but he does now. As the firm’s case against JONAH came together, Dinielli was introduced to a surreal world of pseudo-scientific methods and jargon, traumatizing psychodramas and nude cuddling with counselors.

Selling Bonds to Cannibals

JONAH’s origin story begins with fraud. Arthur Goldberg opened it in 1999, 10 years after the “ one-time Wall Street wunderkind ” (in the words of the Philadelphia Inquirer ) was convicted in a wide-ranging bond fraud scandal; his firm lured low-income communities into the municipal-bond business, and then issued millions of dollars worth of bonds for housing projects and trash plants that never got built. He defrauded the municipality of East St. Louis with a bogus $233 million bond for a river port that was never constructed, and referred to selling bonds to Guam as "selling bonds to the cannibals," according to an FBI report. Goldberg, who also held a law degree, was sentenced to 18 months in prison and disbarred. Back then, he went by Arthur Abba Goldberg, but when he got out, he dropped his middle name, effectively disappearing into the search engine abyss amid thousands of Arthur Goldbergs.

Goldberg says he became interested in gay conversion therapy in the late 1990s, while his son was “struggling with homosexuality.” The conversion therapy industry, made up of mostly Christian ministries, was thriving at the time. Exodus International , the largest conversion therapy umbrella group, had opened hundreds of what they called “ex-gay” ministries across the U.S. and in 18 other countries. (It crumbled in 2013 after many of its foremost figures came out as gay.) Goldberg saw the opportunity to bring those methods to a new market. “There were a lot of Christian-based organizations. There were some secular-based organizations, but there was nothing in the Jewish world,” he told the court on the second day of the JONAH trial.

He reached out to the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), an ex-gay organization (he would later serve on its board). A NARTH therapist put Goldberg in touch with Elaine Berk, who also had a gay child, and was also Jewish. Together, they opened up JONAH in Jersey City, and began offering referrals to conversion therapy practitioners. (The acronym originally stood for Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality; the last word has since been switched out for “Healing.”)

Goldberg became the organization’s public face. Though his only graduate degree was in law, he referred to himself as “Dr. Goldberg” in emails to clients and their parents, as well as on the promotional website for his 2009 book, Light in the Closet: Torah, Homosexuality, and the Power to Change.” Meanwhile, Berk handled clients and ran an active email “listserv” for JONAH men, where they could write emails asking for encouragement when the therapy didn’t seem to be working, or when their crushes on male friends became too hard to repress. Berk regularly responded to the men, issuing reminders of the ramifications of what she called “the gay deathstyle”: AIDS, bowel disease, early death, and, as she put it in one email, “lives based on soul-numbing promiscuity.”

Berk also offered wide-ranging analysis of what causes people to be gay. “I believe there's no such thing as a gay man,” she wrote. Instead, all men are born straight, and “something arrested the normal biologically mandated growth pattern that is built into our genes…. The more SSA activity you have experienced, the more neural pathways, habits you have built up that have to be overcome. Then you begin to build up new neural pathways that help you reach your goal of growing out of SSA,” she wrote. "Growing out of SSA is like growing out of any other life damaging disorder."

“But, Ms. Berk, you're not a neurologist?” Dinielli asked her in court.

“No, I'm not.”

“And you can't really explain what a neural pathway is?”

“No, I can't.”

Nude Weekends in the Woods

In over a decade of operation, JONAH had thousands of clients, most of them young, Jewish men. Its success was due, in large part, to the fact that the Jewish communities it catered to believed that gay identity was simply a set of behaviors that could be changed. After all, God would never place an insurmountable obstacle to obeying the laws of the Torah in front of a person. Likewise, Ultra-orthodox Jews see the recent era of gay rights as part of a broad category of secular influences it actively rejects. So, naturally, Ultra-orthodox Judaism provides a solution: The talmudic concept of teshuvah —turning away from transgression in one’s past—which was highlighted in a letter endorsing conversion therapy published online, and signed by 55 rabbis and Arthur Goldberg. (The letter was taken offline without explanation this month.)

12_18_JewishGayConversion_02 Chaim Levin in his apartment in Crown Heights. He no longer considers himself religious, but he still lives close to his parents and the Jewish community he grew up in. Zack Baddorf for Newsweek

That’s what brought Chaim Levin to JONAH. He says he had been routinely sexually assaulted by his cousin, Sholom Eichler, as a child. Nearly every day, from the time Levin was 6 until he was 10, Eichler, six years his senior, waited on Levin’s aunt and uncle’s front porch for him to come home from school. Levin won a civil suit against Eichler in 2013. Later, when a teenaged Levin realized he was attracted to other boys, he thought it must be the direct result of that abuse. It had to come from somewhere , since it was entirely incompatible with his understanding of how to be a good Hasidic Jew. And that led him to believe his homosexuality was simply an obstacle he would have to overcome. “I used to tell people in yeshiva, ‘Oh, I was abused as a child, and by consequence, this thing happened to me, and I have this problem that I’m working on fixing,’” Levin says.

He started to talk about the abuse with his parents when he was 14. A year later, Levin began talk therapy with an Orthodox practitioner, who agreed that his attractions must be linked to the abuse. Like most teenaged men in his community, Levin spent some time studying at yeshivas—Orthodox Jewish seminaries—abroad, first in Israel, and then in Paris. Every two weeks, he’d have a phone session with a therapist back in Brooklyn. “The motto was, ‘Just for today, I’m not going to touch another boy.’ That’s how we were dealing with it.” But that was untenable, and just before he turned 18, while back in New York, he had sex with a man he met on Craigslist. His therapist was disgusted, he said, and told him she didn’t know how to help him anymore. That’s when a family rabbi pointed Levin to JONAH.

Soon after joining JONAH, Levin soon found himself in the woods at a rented church campground in rural Pennsylvania, signing a nondisclosure form and confirming to a counselor that, yes, he’d left his cell phone in the car. He was there for a therapeutic weekend retreat recommended by Goldberg, where he would begin to regain his manhood—a key step in turning from gay to straight.

The retreats were run by People Can Change (PCC), a conversion organization founded by Rich Wyler, a Mormon who says he’s “ex-gay.” Having “unwanted same-sex attraction,” he explains, “comes from an emotional deficit around same-gender bonding. It comes oftentimes from this sense of a deficit in inner sense of masculinity.” Some men try to “close that gap romantically.”

Wyler began organizing weekend programs in 2002. Downing attended the first one that year, while he was in ex-gay therapy with David Matheson, founder of The Center for Gender Wholeness, a Mormon conversion therapy group that had an office in JONAH’s building in Jersey City. Downing told the court he’d “basically resolved” his feelings toward men after less than a year of therapy, and has been staffing Wyler’s weekends ever since. He also had a hand in crafting their highly detailed scripts that dictated nearly every line of dialogue between staffers, who played various roles on the weekends, which were reminiscent of elaborate stage dramas. He and Goldberg routinely sent JONAH’s clients to Wyler’s weekends.

For many years, the retreats were a deeply hidden secret—because that’s the way Wyler and JONAH wanted it. For the “advanced” weekend, called “Journey Beyond,” participants signed nondisclosure agreements stipulating $5,000 in damages if they ever spoke about what happened there. When JONAH was on trial, Wyler attempted to exclude information about Journey Beyond on the basis of trade secret law, but the judge shot him down, and unsealed testimony from Jonathan Hoffman—a star witness for JONAH, a “success story” they held up as validation of their methodology. In it, Hoffman described a nude “rebirthing” ceremony.

The simulated birth is the beginning of a psychodrama-packed weekend spent almost entirely naked. First, attendees of the retreat strip down, and tie on blindfolds. Naked and blind, they are led to mattresses laid out on the floor. Staffers swaddle the men in blankets, tight, to “simulate the womb.” The men then wriggle out of their plush blankets—meant to approximate a birth canal—and staffers “come and kind of nurture these new babies…you know, kind of wipe water on their face, and kind of clean them up, and it feels very real,” Hoffman said. Next, the men play out boyhood, with a “crazy, fun father who like bursts into the nursery and says ‘Come on, boys, let's have some fun together!’” (Downing sometimes played the role of “father.”) By this stage, both participants and staff members are nude. The men are lead out of the “nursery” and into a field, where a “wild party” begins. There’s a waterslide, fireworks and “brotherly dancing” around a campfire. The naked men fling mud and throw cake—laid out for just that purpose—at each other. They’re all “just expressing their little boyish energy” for about an hour, explained Hoffman, who now lives with his wife and child in Jerusalem, where he works as a conversion therapy life coach.

Afterward, everyone showers together. “It's just carefree, you know, if there's cake on my back, can you help me get it off my back,” said Hoffman, adding that the nudity “becomes very secondary.” He explained that if men got erections during the weekend, they were encouraged to talk to a staffer to “process it,” talk about what might be causing it until it went away. In gay conversion therapy, sexual attraction is never just sexual attraction; there must be some sublimated drive, deficit or trauma to be dealt with.

Both Levin and Unger attended PCC’s entry-level weekend: Journey Into Manhood. The core theme is a loose interpretation of the Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale, in which Jack (played by a staff member) is reclaiming his beans—his masculinity. The participants are awarded a satchel of beans to wear around their necks at the end of the weekend. The script dispels any ambiguity early on:

Jack : So what is up with the beanstalk?

Elder [a second counselor]: The beanstalk is a masculine image, a phallic symbol.

Jack: So the beanstalk is a big penis?

Elder: Well, symbolically, yes.

In another Journey Into Manhood scenario, participants are blindfolded while facilitators bounce basketballs around them in a crude reenactment of grade school gym class, while shouting scripted epithets such as, “Catch the ball next time or I’ll shove it up your ass” and “Hey, guys, let’s get that little queer in the shower.” For another exercise, called “Facing the Feminine,” the floor is littered with “feminine objects,” like a wooden spoon, an apron and a tampon. Participants are blindfolded while counselors shout "Don't touch your penis, it's dirty!" or "I was really hoping you would be born a girl!" or "Can't get it up!" and "You're not the man I thought I married!”

Toward the end of the weekend, participants are emotionally raw, Levin remembers. That’s when cuddling begins.

Spirit Guide [a counselor]: Can you connect to that boy inside you now?

Jack : Yes.

Spirit Guide : Would that little boy like to be touched or held?

Jack : Yes.

Jack and the Spirit Guide then cradle each other on the floor, and the lights go down. Music comes on: Spiritual “life coach” and singer Shaina Noll’s saccharine rendition of “ How Could Anyone .” How could anyone ever tell you that you were anything less than beautiful?/How could anyone ever tell you you were less than whole?

Eventually, all the men are on the floor, staffers cradling participants. Unger remembers staffers whispering “I love you,” “you’re beautiful,” and other affectionate phrases during the cradling—which Downing calls “healthy touch"—as “How Could Anyone” played over and over.

12_18_JewishGayConversion_06 Benjy Unger now works as a bartender in a hip, upscale restaurant in Manhattan. Online reviews of the place typically include the phrase “gay friendly.” He mixes drinks in his uniform, a black fitted t-shirt with the words “Heaven” on the front, and “in Hell” across the back. Zack Baddorf for Newsweek

Strip Therapy

“I sang it to Benjy sometimes,” Dinielli says, laughing, on a Friday night months after the trial ended. He begins humming the first few bars of “How Could Anyone.” Unger narrows his eyes and feigns a scowl, but then joins in before looking past us to tend to another customer. We are sitting at the bar at the upscale restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen where Unger, now 28, tends bar. Online reviews of the place typically include the phrase “gay friendly.” It was the busiest shift of the week and Unger mixed drinks quickly, biceps flexing under his uniform, a black fitted t-shirt with the words “Heaven” on the front, and “in Hell” across the back.

“I see you flirting with all your customers,” Dinielli teases Unger.

“It’s called healthy touch, David,” Unger shoots back, grinning. JONAH jokes.

The chatty bartender is barely recognizable in the round-faced 17-year-old in a yarmulke pictured on Unger’s driver’s license. He’s made a point not to change the photo. “Why would I? It’s who I was. It’s where I came from. It’s also good first-date conversation.” Back then, he prayed three times a day, wearing a black brimmed hat over his yarmulke, the white threads of his tzitzit hanging down from the waist of his black dress pants. From age 11 or 12, he had crushes on classmates in his all-boys yeshivas, and then in the all-male rabbinical school in Jerusalem where he spent a year and a half. He says he was always “toeing the line” in these places, and figured his attraction to boys would pass. It had to be a phase—no one in his Orthodox Jewish world was gay.

But in a community where nearly all contact with the opposite sex is forbidden and teenage hormones raged, it was not uncommon for young men to get a little too close, to slap each other on the butt, to cuddle. "I played it off as the straight guy so comfortable with his sexuality that he could cuddle his friends and it wasn’t a big deal,” Unger says. He was popular and athletic. “I played football. No one knew.”

But by 18, when he was in rabbinical school in Jerusalem, he began to worry that “it” wasn’t going away. He thought about his return home to Borough Park, Brooklyn, where men are matched up to marriageable women immediately after their stints in Israel. Unger knew he’d soon be fielding “resumes” of eligible women from family and friends, each woman’s photograph pinned to the top-right corner. The stress derailed his studies. On a trip home for Passover, he finally told his parents about his attraction to men.

It went better than he expected. They were “extremely loving," but just as confused as he was about how to proceed. One rabbi said it might be a chemical imbalance, and that Unger should seek medical attention. Another was sure Unger would live a happy enough life if he just found a wife who could cook really well. Eventually, Unger’s father gave him the number for “Rabbi Arthur Goldberg.”

Two to four years, Goldberg told Unger over the phone. That’s how long it would take for JONAH’s program to turn him from gay to straight, if he just put in the work. And paid the money. JONAH was registered as a nonprofit, and Downing charged $100 for each one-on-one counseling session, and $60 for group sessions, which Unger’s father would pay. Goldberg—who is not ordained as a rabbi—was reassuring, authoritative, confident. The therapy was scientifically proven, he said, and he’d seen it work hundreds of times. “I was ecstatic,” Unger testified in court.

Putting in the work, it turned out, meant beating a pillow effigy of his mother with a tennis racket until his hands bled, screaming “Mom!” with each blow. It meant cutting off contact with his mother for several months, because Downing determined their relationship was “too close.” It meant cuddling with men, often older, ex-gay men, with lights dimmed and “How Could Anyone” playing over and over. It involved Journey into Manhood weekends in the woods, blindfolded, enduring psychodrama after psychodrama. Most of them were generalized, archetypal, like the gym class scene with the basketballs, but Levin also watched while participants role-played scenes from his childhood sexual abuse.

Their “treatment” also involved undressing in front of a full-length mirror in Downing’s office.

Unger and Levin were both told “to say one negative thing about [themselves], remove an article of clothing, then repeat the process," according to court transcripts. In Unger’s case, Downing stood behind him, hand on his shoulder, breath on his neck. Unger stopped the exercise when Downing told him to take off his pants. Levin testified that Downing had him strip down completely, then told him to hold his penis, to “feel his masculinity.” He complied. (In court, Downing said he couldn’t remember whether or not Levin held his penis, but that he “certainly didn’t” tell him to.)

There were clinical-sounding names for all of the strange things JONAH asked of its patients. Beating the pillow was “bioenergetics,” or “guts work.” Cuddling with men was “healthy touch.” Stripping in front of the mirror was “body work,” to deal with “body image issues.” Downing also told Unger that getting erections around men might have nothing to do with sexual attraction; he called them “NRBs,” or “no-reason boners.” He gave an example: “He said, ‘Just like when your nephew sits on your lap, and you might get an erection sometimes, it doesn’t mean anything.’”

12_18_JewishGayConversion_05 Zack Baddorf for Newsweek

The pseudo-professional language Goldberg and Downing used mirrored that of the ex-gay therapy community worldwide, an interconnected world where people, many without psychology degrees, write books that borrow the language of psychology but none of its rigor, and tend to mostly cite one another, Dinielli says. Dozens of books with titles like Growing into Manhood and Healing Homosexuality are available online, and JONAH tailored the notions laid out in these books for their Jewish clientele: As part of the “gender-affirming” therapy, Unger says Downing told him to go to the ritual Jewish bath, the mikvah , with his father as much as possible “and to just stare at his penis.”

‘Rationalized Homophobia’

Conversion therapy is dying in chunks. Four states and the District of Columbia have recently banned the practice for minors, and bills are pending in Massachusetts, New York, Washington state and New Hampshire to do the same. Last month, President Barack Obama called for a nationwide end to conversion therapy for minors and the medical community almost unanimously agrees that conversion therapy does not work , and can cause harm .

But despite making regular appearances in the news for years, the how of conversion therapy has been missing. The JONAH case was the first time the public heard what happens inside the rooms where young men go to be “fixed.” The big reveal began in 2010, when Wayne Besen, a gay rights activist who runs the nonprofit Truth Wins Out, shot a video of Unger and Levin talking about their therapy sessions with Downing. Besen uploaded it to YouTube , where it garnered a few thousand clicks. Later, Levin wrote an op-ed describing his experience in the Jewish Press, the local Orthodox Jewish newspaper; it was a first for the typically conservative publication, which also advertised JONAH’s services in its pages. In it, Levin proudly announced he was gay, and criticized the Orthodox community for buying into “ the worst kind of rationalized homophobia ” by sending their children to therapy like that offered by JONAH.

In 2012, Sam Wolfe, a senior staff attorney at the SPLC, met Levin at an Exodus International conference for ex-gay practitioners and patients, where he was protesting. Wolfe, who was raised Mormon and went through a form of conversion therapy, was looking for plaintiffs for a conversion therapy case. Shortly after, they began to piece together a robust legal team. It included Scott McCoy, the first openly gay state senator in Utah, and several other openly gay men, among them Dinielli and Wolfe. “It was so amazing to show my parents my gay lawyers,” says Levin. “For people here, gays don’t exist. There aren’t gays in Crown Heights; there are gays in the Village.”

The lawyers, from the SPLC and two high-powered corporate firms who took on the case pro-bono, went after JONAH on unconventional ground: They sued not for emotional damages, but for consumer fraud. They contended that by telling its clients homosexuality was a disorder, and taking their money to perform a cure, JONAH was defrauding customers. Legally, you can’t claim to fix what isn’t broken, and homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of disorders in 1973. They didn’t need to prove malicious behavior, or willful deceit; they only needed to prove JONAH was selling junk.

That turned out to be pretty easy. After listening to the graphic details of the process for four weeks this June, the jury unanimously voted JONAH guilty of consumer fraud on all counts. Because consumer fraud cases can only recuperate money spent, the sum at issue was chump change; the plaintiffs had paid for one-on-one and group counseling, plus $650 for each therapeutic weekend in the woods. In total, they won just $72,400, but by January 17, following a settlement agreement, JONAH will have to shut down for good. By June 15, all its assets must be liquidated, and all trace of it removed from the web.

The case sets a legal precedent: virtually any conversion therapy organization can now be sued on the same grounds. And there’s plenty to go after. There is no complete tally of conversion therapy outfits, but several institutions continue operation, like Joseph Nicolosi’s Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic in Encino, California, and Desert Stream, a Christian ex-gay ministry with chapters across the country. And m any counselors practice conversion therapy independently of any ministry or clinic. They still have some political clout, too: in 2014, the Texas Republican Party adopted support for “reparative therapy” as an official party plank .

Wyler says the JONAH trial was rigged; Judge Peter Bariso was “extraordinarily” biased, he says, evidenced by the fact that he barred several people JONAH wanted to call as experts. (Bariso ruled their testimony inadmissible, because, he wrote , “the theory that homosexuality is a disorder is not novel but—like the notion that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it—instead is outdated and refuted.”)

One of Wyler’s major complaints is that the plaintiffs and the court misinterpreted the weekends he still organizes eight times a year: “Why is it that in our homoerotic culture we’ve...made it so any male touch is now sexual? It was really horrible to have something to me that is powerful and sacred and brotherly and nonsexual and beautiful be mocked and sexualized and eroticized. It was just criminal what they were trying to do,” he said, his voice rising with exasperation. “And all because they want people like us to go away.”

The Last of ‘Alan’s Boys’

When I met Chaim Levin and David Dinielli at a kosher bagel shop in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn on a Friday afternoon in November, they were chatting like old friends as I picked my way through tables of ultra-Orthodox families eating whitefish and lox on plump, hand-rolled bagels. Levin was raised three blocks away, ultra-Orthodox, in the Chabad tradition, and had nearly no secular education, as is standard for children in the community—Yiddish was spoken in school, and Hebrew read in synagogue, but no English reading, writing, math, science or secular history was taught in Levin’s yeshiva. His parents paid for one hour of secular tutoring a week. Chaim is agnostic now, and a self-described activist for LGBT rights in the Jewish community. But he still lives in heavily ultra-Orthodox Crown Heights, and has no problem with putting on a yarmulke now and again; he’s trying to normalize being gay in Crown Heights—walking through the neighborhood on the Sabbath with his head uncovered would only alienate his neighbors.

Dinielli finishes his bagel and lox, and Levin leans forward in the noisy shop to say that he doesn’t cry much. He can count the times he’s cried on one hand. Downing noted it too; in a session note, he wrote that it was probably a “protective mechanism” Levin had developed to deal with his abuse. But when Downing testified at trial, claiming over and over that his former clients were misstating events, Levin broke down, sobbing. He left the courtroom and slumped into a corner, tears streaming—he’d finally realized how “vastly manipulative” Downing was. “What’s sad for me is that I got to realize it, but a lot of the other guys still don’t. He was so slick.”

While he was in therapy, Levin’s emails to the Listserv referred to his sessions with Downing, and to Goldberg and Berk, with reverence. He had fully trusted and believed in JONAH. So had many others; some of Downing’s clients even called themselves “Alan’s Boys.”

12_18_JewishGayConversion_03 Zack Baddorf for Newsweek

“This trial probably saved my life,” Levin says. He struggled with depression after leaving JONAH, and was hospitalized twice for suicide attempts. On this unseasonably warm morning, he grins broadly and speaks gregariously, gesturing and waving to neighbors as the three of us leave the bagel shop and walk down the block. Out on the sidewalk, women in long skirts push strollers full of children in matching outfits, and men in yarmulkes and black coats carry packages and dip in and out of stores. Levin says he gained weight during the trial due to stress; since it ended, he’d lost 15 pounds. Dimples flashed beneath his short beard.

Levin is now finding his way in the secular world. He’s quit smoking, he’s dating, he just signed up for college classes. He’s happy, he says, for the first time in years. “[JONAH] shutting down is another step toward making sure the 18-year-old version of Chaim Levin doesn’t get conned into buying a fake cure for something that doesn’t need to be fixed,” he says. “But it doesn’t mean the fight is over, by any means, because there are still Orthodox therapists doing this.” He knows several Orthodox men, now married to women, who sought therapy to suppress their attraction to men. He suspects some in his community still call him “faygeleh,” the yiddish colloquialism for “faggot,” behind his back, but he’s seeing small changes in Crown Heights; a Hasidic synagogue there asked him to help organize a panel for January on how to better engage gay Jews.

We walk past his childhood yeshiva, and past the stately brick apartment building where his cousin once lived. Levin points to the windows on the fourth floor, where his cousin used to take him. “That room, and that room.” It took him years to be able to walk near this intersection again. Then he points toward a wide thoroughfare lined with callery pear trees where black-hatted men mill about. “The litmus test is still, would you walk down Kingston Avenue holding a boy’s hand?” Not yet, he says, but soon.

Join the Discussion