Thursday, November 29, 2012

Rabbinical Council of America no longer endorses reparative therapy

November 29, 2012

Dear Chaverim,
The following will be released to the press later today.

Rabbinical Council of America's Statement Regarding JONAH (Jews Offering New
Alternatives to Homosexuality)

In the years since the Rabbinical Council of America's first comment about JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality), "the only Jewish based organization dedicated to assisting individuals with unwanted same sex attractions move from gay to straight" in January, 2004, in which we suggested that rabbis might refer congregants to them for reparative therapy, many concerns about JONAH and reparative therapy have been raised.

As rabbis trained in Jewish law and values, we base our religious positions regarding medical matters on the best research and advice of experts and scholars in those areas, along with concern for the religious, emotional, and physical welfare of those impacted by our decisions.  Our responsibility is to apply halakhic (Jewish legal) values to those opinions. 

Based on consultation with a wide range of mental health experts and therapists who informed us of the lack of scientifically rigorous studies that support the effectiveness of therapies to change sexual orientation, a review of literature written by experts and major medical and mental health organizations, and based upon reports of the negative and, at times, deleterious consequences to clients of some of the interventions endorsed by JONAH, the Rabbinical Council of America decided in 2011, as part of an overall statement on the Jewish attitude towards homosexuality, to withdraw its original letter referencing JONAH.  Despite numerous attempts by the RCA to have mention of that original letter removed from the JONAH website, our calls, letters, and emails remain unanswered.  As Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the RCA, stated in 2011, "We want it taken down. JONAH said it was a letter of support, but if you read the letter it is not. They took an informational statement and reprinted it, and the use of that as an endorsement is an error."

We believe that properly trained mental health professionals who abide bythe values and ethics of their professions can and do make a difference in the lives of their patients and clients.  The RCA believes that responsible therapists, in partnership with amenable clients, should be able to work on
whatever issues those clients voluntarily bring to their session. Allegations made against JONAH lead us to question whether JONAH meets those standards.

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Chancellor of Yeshiva University and author of the 1974 Encyclopedia Judaica Year Book article, "Judaism and the Modern Attitude to Homosexuality," the first contemporary article to address the issue from the perspective of Jewish law and philosophy, had originally commended the work of JONAH.  In response to the negative reports about JONAH's activities and concerns expressed to him by respected mental health professionals, Dr. Lamm withdrew his endorsement of JONAH.

About the RCA:

The Rabbinical Council of America, with national headquarters in New York City, is a professional organization serving more than 1000 Orthodox Rabbis in the United States of America, Canada, Israel, and around the world. Membership is comprised of duly ordained Orthodox Rabbis who serve in positions of the congregational rabbinate, Jewish education, chaplaincies, and other allied fields of Jewish communal work.
For further information about this statement, you may contact:

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin

Rabbi Mark Dratch
Executive Vice President
The Rabbinical Council of America
305 Seventh Ave
New York, NY 10001

Reparative Therapy, "It wasn't kosher" on Joy Behar Say Anything!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Organization Promising Gay Cure Sued for Fraud

Today a ground breaking lawsuit was filed against Jews Offering Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH) offering reparative or ex-gay therapy, the 'cure' for homosexuality repudiated by the America Psychaitric, Psychological and Medical Associations, but nonetheless still recommended by many Orthodox rabbis. There has already been much press. Here is an article from ABC, and several others are compiled here. More to come.

Gay Men, Moms Sue NJ Jewish Gay Conversion Therapists

PHOTO: Chaim Levin,now 23, alleges he received "humiliating" gay conversion therapy and was "misled" into thinking he could become straight.

Nov. 27, 2012

Four gay men and two of their mothers filed a lawsuit today against a New Jersey conversion therapy group that claims to rid men of same-sex attractions and turn them straight.

The lawsuit, filed in Superior Court of New Jersey Hudson County, alleges that methods used by the Jersey City-based Jews Offering New Alternatives to Healing (JONAH) do not work and constitute fraud under the state's consumer protection laws.

Arthur Goldberg, JONAH's co-director, and Alan Downing, a "life coach" who provides therapy sessions, were also named in the suit.

The plaintiffs include Michael Ferguson, Benjamin Unger, Sheldon Bruck and Chaim Levin, all of whom used the services of JONAH when they were in their teens or young 20s.

Two of the men's mothers, Jo Bruck and Bella Levin, who paid for therapy sessions that could cost up to $10,000 a year, were also plaintiffs.

One of the plaintiffs alleges that therapy sessions that involved a virtual "strip tease" in front of an older male counselor, as well as reliving abuse and homophobia were "humiliating."

They are seeking declaratory, injunctive and an undisclosed amount of monetary relief, as well as court costs, according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs have received legal help from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which claims in the lawsuit that conversion therapy is a dangerous practice that has been "discredited or highly criticized" by every major American medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional organization.

Three of the young plaintiffs are from an ultra orthodox Jewish background; Ferguson came from a Mormon background and met Downing at a "Journey Into Manhood" retreat, according to the lawsuit.

JONAH appears to cater to orthodox Jews, but its methods "do not have a strong religious aspect," according to SPLC lawyer Sam Wolfe.

The lawsuit alleges that some of the methods used included: telling boys to beat a pillow, the "effigy of the client's mother," with a tennis racket; encouraging "cuddling" between younger clients and older male counselors; and even instructing attendees to remove their clothing and hold their penis in front of Downing.

Attendees were also subjected to ridicule as "faggots" and "homos" in mock locker room and gym class role playing, according to the lawsuit.

"It's definitely cruel and unusual and doesn't work," said Wolfe. "They are peddling bogus techniques that have no foundation in science and are basically ridiculous and even harmful."

Wolfe paraphrased JONAH's message as: "All you have to do is put in the work to overcome your sexual attractions. If you follow our program your true orientation emerges and will turn you into a straight person."

"Often if what the conversion therapist tells them doesn't work, it's their fault," Wolfe added.

In 2008, when the plaintiffs were seeking help from JONAH, the cost of an individual therapy session was $100 and for a group session, $60. JONAH also "strongly pushed" attending weekend retreats that could cost as much as $700, said Wolfe.

Arthur Goldberg said he "knows nothing about the lawsuit," which was filed this morning, and referred to JONAH's website.

"We have a lot of people who were a success and were healed," he said of JONAH's 14 years in service. "Hundreds of the clients we serve are satisfied ... Our therapy is very conventional."

When asked about the group's practices, he said, "I can't tell you about the methodology." Goldberg admitted he had "no background specifically in counseling."

"I am the administrator," he said. "I used to teach family law."

When asked about instructing boys to take off their clothes, he said, "I know nothing about that."

Goldberg also said he had "no idea" how to reach Downing because he was an "independent contractor."

According to JONAH's mission statement on its website, the nonprofit group is "dedicated to educating the world-wide Jewish community about the social, cultural and emotional factors which lead to same-sex attractions."

"Through psychological and spiritual counseling, peer support, and self-empowerment, JONAH seeks to reunify families, to heal the wounds surrounding homosexuality, and to provide hope," the statement reads.

JONAH's Goldberg, who runs the business side of the nonprofit, says on the website that "change from homosexual to heterosexual is possible … homosexuality is a learned behavior which can be unlearned, and that healing is a lifelong process."

According to the lawsuit, JONAH cites the "scientific" work of Joseph Nicolosi, one of the primary proponents of conversion therapy and Richard A. Cohen, who was permanently expelled from the American Counseling Association in 2002 for "multiple ethical violations."

Nicolosi's methodology is based on the belief that a weak father-son relationship and a dominating mother contribute to homosexuality. He advocates "rough and tumble games," as well as father-son showers, according to the lawsuit.

Cohen uses a technique called "bioenergetics" that includes having male patients beat a pillow, which represents their mother, as a way of stopping same-sex attraction, according to the lawsuit.

Conversion therapists also cite child abuse and bullying as a "primary cause" of homosexuality, according to the lawsuit.

The American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization, among other mental health groups, have cited the potential risks of reparation therapy, including "depression, anxiety [and] self-destructive behavior," according to the lawsuit.

Chaim Levin, the most vocal of the plaintiffs, is now 23 and a gay rights advocate who writes a blog, Gotta Give 'Em Hope.

He grew up in a Jewish ultra orthodox community in Brooklyn where religious leaders threw him out of the Hebrew-speaking yeshiva at the age of 17, when they learned he was gay.

Levin told that he had been abused as a boy and that he was "confused" by his sexuality and took a rabbi's advice and began 18 months of gay conversion therapy at JONAH.

[Levin filed a civil lawsuit against his cousin in July, alleging he was abused for three years from the time he was 6.]

When Levin met co-director Goldberg, he said the defendant told him JONAH could change his sexual orientation, "as long as I tried hard enough and put enough effort into it."

"He told me, 'You will marry a woman and have a straight life,'" said Levin.

"Given where I came from, with three older siblings who were married with kids and not knowing any gay people or English, I was sure I could change," he said. "That was the theology."

Levin first did a retreat with Downing, then saw him weekly at therapy sessions in Jersey City.

"A lot of the therapy involves reliving the experience," he said. Levin alleges he was forced to relive the sexual abuse by his cousin, "with no counseling afterwards."

But the most "humiliating" experience, the one that Levin alleges made him quit therapy, was being asked by Downing to take off his clothes, article by article and told to touch his "private parts" -- to hold his penis in front of a mirror to "be in touch with my masculinity."

"I told him I wasn't comfortable, but I desperately wanted to change and was ready to do anything," said Levin. Afterward, he said he felt "degraded and violated."

Today, Levin no longer identifies as orthodox, but said his parents have been "supportive" of the lawsuit.

Some Jewish denominations and many congregations are inclusive of homosexual congregants, and even New York's orthodox communities are more open-minded now, according to Levin.

"I had gone for help and they had misrepresented themselves," he said.

Monday, November 19, 2012

When I Lost Hope: Levin v. Eichler

Early this past July, I filed a lawsuit against Sholom Eichler, a first cousin who sexually abused me for four years starting when I was 6. From the day the abuse began until last year, I hadn’t felt confident, strong or ready to attempt to pursue justice and hold Eichler accountable for what he did to me. I was afraid. The people I counted on to protect and help me when I was young only fed that fear, allowing it to grow. I had confided in my school principal, Rabbi Lustig of Oholei Torah, when I was 14 and the years of secret pain were too much to bear alone. Rabbi Lustig advised my parents not to create “a family fight” by confronting Eichler or his parents and strongly urged them not to say anything. Consequently, Eichler remained a welcome presence in my parents’ home for the rest of my youth, and my family celebrated his wedding despite knowing that he brutally abused and molested me for four years of my childhood four years that I’ll never get back, four years that I live with everyday of my life.

It’s been difficult. And, forgiving my family and the caregivers who betrayed me is no easy thing. Yet, I am grateful to most of my immediate family members for their support that, although it came late, did still come.I have been lucky to have the unwavering support of my parents and siblings throughout the journey the past few years has taken me on. My parents stand proudly behind me and support me in the work that I do the cause I believe in and live for. They accept me completely as I am; my orientation is just another inherent aspect little different from the color of my eyes or my skin tone. Everyday, I hear from people whose families reject them, sometimes even disowning them, just because they’re gay. I had truly believed and feared that my family would never come around, but I was wrong. They have arrived, and I couldn’t be more proud to call them my family, my blood. They have been there for me as I have tried to pursue justice.

Before filing a lawsuit against Eichler, I attempted to envision the different scenarios that might result, but I was not prepared for what ensued. Many people sympathized with Eichler and recast the traumatic abuse as just “two kids fooling around,” others called the lawsuit a ploy for attention, and some even had the audacity simply to feed into the denial all too commonly surrounding abuse, dismissing what had happened to me with assertion that Eichler is “family man” incapable of the horrific crimes he committed against me, my body and my mind. It had taken years for me to regain some sort of wholeness with which I could try to move forward, and the negative reactions to the lawsuit challenged that.  

And, I lost hope. I had to take a step back. I had lost my way. I have spent the last few months trying to figure out my place, where I belong and what I want to do in the future. I have also done as much I can to begin to heal from the childhood trauma that I endured. I had lost the confidence that was so hard to build. I lost my drive. I was disappointed and angry with many people; it was truly horrifying for me to hear anyone try defending the likes of Eichler despite what was known. So many people were focused on “Jewish gay activist sues cousin for sexual abuse” that the story was lost. It was a headline that told them all that they thought they needed to know. It was a headline that allowed them to conclude that the abuse I experienced at the hands of Eichler must have been consensual despite his being six years older because I proudly identify as a gay man and had not told anyone while the abuse occurred. It was a headline that allowed people to continue to ignore abuse and to blame and dismiss survivors. The misguided conclusions people made about me and what had happened to me were far from reality; still, they were a source of pain.

While I don’t feel the need to defend my choice in taking actions against someone that hurt me, I do think it’s important to address some matters before other abuse survivors’ motives are questioned and they are harmed in the process. Eichler may have been a minor at the time of the abuse, but I was a child; I couldn’t consent, and I didn’t have a choice. Eichler exploited my vulnerability in feeling different and inferior, which made me a perfect target for a predator. He once told me that he had to be mean to me in public so that no one caught on to “our” secret. Eichler sexually, physically and mentally abused me. He devised elaborate strategies to isolate and intimidate me and to lure me away to commit unspeakable acts. Even after Eichler sodomized me with a pen when he became frustrated with my small, unaccommodating, fragile, eight year old anatomy, I was still too afraid to tell anyone. Like many other survivors, I was afraid and ashamed. That was why I kept it a secret for as long as I did, but when I was more able to understand what had happened I reached out for help.

My principal, family and community’s reaction are examples of what fed and continues to feed the pernicious silence that creates an environment conducive to abuse and that revictimizes survivors. I reached out again to my former principal upon retaining my lawyers, but he refused to cooperate, claiming that it was against Jewish law for him to get involved in any capacity. Rabbi Lustig knew what was at stake when he refused to cooperate less than a year ago, when abuse was no longer taboo and most rabbis called for everyone to help survivors achieve justice. Given Rabbi Lustig’s past and the history with running Oholei Torah for which he has not been held accountable, I cannot be too shocked by the way he continues to handle matters. My family, on the other hand, were there for me when I needed them this time, and it means so much to me. It’s been a long and painful road in finding some middle ground with my family. Instead of ignoring it and pretending like nothing happened as they had for too long, they were ready and willing to do whatever it took to bring justice and closure for me in any capacity necessary.

Justice and closure have been hard coming. Eichler and his family refuse to face the limelight. Neither he nor his family have publicly commented on the charges. There were those who thought he deserved his day in court; well, he got it, but he chose to not to use it. Eichler did not even file a response to the complaint against him, and a default judgment has been requested. And, it appears that his response to the default judgement against him will be immigrating to Israel.

I used to wish I could just escape from the past.Today, I think differently. Today, I want to move forward. I know that if I had missed the opportunity to pursue some justice as I decided after my 23rd birthday this past May, it would have been all the more difficult to move forward with my life, still burdened with a conflicted conscious and consuming secret. Now the secret is out, Eichler is exposed, and other children may be safer and other survivors find it easier to come forward. I am unapologetically proud of my choice to file a suit against Eichler for the damage he caused me. Now, I stand prouder and stronger, ready to move forward with my future while being mindful of the evils of the past. While they might be in my past, they continue to be a source of struggle for me and are a present reality for far too many people. The case was brought to court, but that does not mean it’s over; sadly, these battles are never over. Nonetheless, I am relieved to be in a better place in my life to do the things I hope and plan on doing; these include continuing to be an outspoken, unashamed survivor and an unapologetic critic of those who continue to feed toxic and dangerous environments in which abuse is covered up, and, most importantly, to put an end to the deafening silence that has handicapped so many of us.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Huffington Post: The Grave Truth Threatening Orthodox Communities

June 14th, 2012
Chaim Levin

This past sunday, a townhall meeting was held in Crown Heights to raise awareness regarding the epidemic of child sexual abuse within Orthodox communities and their problematic responses. The event hosted by Eli Federman, a long time community activist and champion of these important causes, and included incredible panelists: Rabbi Yosef Blau, a vocal advocate and supporter of survivor's rights; Irwin Zalkin, an attorney for survivors of clergy sexual abuse; Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney; Mordechai Feinsten, a survivor and advocate; and Zvi Gluck, community activist and founder of Our Place, a safe space for survivors. Along with the panelists, the Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes spoke. He attempted to justify his legally dubious and controversial practice of keeping confidential the names of religious Jews prosecuted for these heinous crimes, adding "I created a system that keeps the names of offenders out of the public only to protect victims, and I'll be damned if I change that."
Perhaps, he should be. The Orthodox community is his most powerful voting block, and his policy protects Orthodox offenders and complies with the community's general suppression of sexual abuse, which the D.A. himself acknowledges involves more "intimidation [than] in organized crime cases". The Orthodox community, especially leaders and educators were conspicuously absentfrom this event, but, three weeks ago, they had come out en masse.
On May 20th 40,000 religious Jews gathered at Citi Field to discuss the "grave" threat the internet poses to their religious lifestyle. From the moment I found out about this event, I was dumbfounded. I simply could not understand how a rally on the "dangers" of the internet was rational, productive or even fair -- not just fair to all the real issues ignored in these religious communities, but also to the people themselves, who were blindly following their religious leaders.
Just before this event took place, leaders of the Williamsburg Satmar community held a fundraiser for a man accused of raping a young girl repeatedly over the course of years; community leaders called for everyone to come donate money to fund his defense. The leaders further claimed that such allegations in general pose a great threat to the future of their community. While the community embraced the accused abuser, it has harassed, ostracized and intimidated the survivor. While I and a few others were protesting this event, a religious woman said to us simply, "I know him [the accused]; it can't be true" -- as if she had some special method of knowing for a fact that Weberman did not commit the crimes he was accused of. Such blanket denial is something I witnessed firsthand while growing up. It was an ignorant and dangerous response from a parent, that is indicative of actual grave threat facing the children of religious communities such as Williamsburg, which would rally to raise funds for a man accused of ruining an innocent life. Four days later and three million dollars spent, 40,000 religious Jews came to Citi Field proudly and listened as their religious leaders proclaimed the evils, ills and dangers of the internet. The internet is seen as a threat to religious life; otherwise suppressed stories of abuse within religious communities are being revealed via the internet.
Trying to come to terms with being sexually abused from the ages of 6 to 10, I had kept my childhood traumas out of the public eye for as long as I could. It had been my deepest secret, my biggest shame and the most toxic driving force in my life. Coming out as a survivor seemed especially important now. Given the very clear denial of the threat that children face and leaders' attempts to suppress rather than address the problem, publicly acknowledging what I have struggled with for most of my life seemed imperative in order to shed light on the problem and provide people some hope.
Before coming forward, I was concerned with the pernicious yet persistent misconception that being molested makes people gay. Numerous studies and the American Psychiatric Association have concluded, "no specific psychosocial or family dynamic cause for homosexuality has been identified, including histories of childhood sexual abuse. Sexual abuse does not appear to be more prevalent in children who grow up to identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, than in children who identify as heterosexual." Nonetheless, when I was younger, I was mislead into harmful and dangerous "reparative" therapy, which maintains this unscientific misconception. The biggest shanda (shame), the worst part of the abuse for some in my family is that I "turned out" gay. Sadly, these people and many others fail to realize that it is far more likely that I was molested because I was gay and consequently vulnerable because I was different and felt isolated; my abuser counted on me remaining silent. And, I had suffered silently through the abuse and its long lasting effects. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, severe anxiety, extreme difficulty concentrating, constant nightmares, those are only some of the results of being molested. My orientation is most certainly not. I am very blessed to be who I am; I am very proud of my gay identity, which is not related to the horrific trauma that I endured for four years of my childhood.
Stories of precious childhoods stolen by sexual abuse are coming out now more than ever. These stories were kept secret for years as survivors suffered silently, faulted themselves for the trauma they endured and believed that did not deserve justice. Every day, the media hands us another heart-wrenching story about an innocent child or young adult who was abused by someone more powerful and were then forced to keep quiet and intimidated into not reporting the crimes, in some cases with threats against their livelihood or their families. Many such stories are shared on the internet.
In order to denounce the internet as a danger facing the Jewish people, approximately three million dollars was spent to rally every Hasidic Jew who would listen. Child abuse was not mentioned once. Many other demonstrators and I held signs reading "the internet never molested me", "how many children can $3,000,000 save" and others that made clear our reasons and motives for protesting this event, which many of the attendees claimed was a "great kiddush HaShem" (sanctification of G-d's name). Every second standing there, I was shocked by the masses of attendees showing up, many with children and grandchildren. I could not help but feel sad and concerned for the younger innocent ones who might be harmed because their gedolim (most revered rabbis) concluded that the threat to their lives was the internet rather than the gnawingly obvious problem of child abuse that enough survivors had bravely come forward to expose. The internet has been a vital resource we survivors have used to attempt at healing ourselves and sparing others.
Rabbi Zwiebel of Agudath Israel of America (an umbrella organization for Orthodox Judaism in America) lambasted discussion of sexual abuse on the internet stating, "through the pressure [bloggers] have created, communal issues that need to be confronted were moved to the front burner and taken seriously. A case in point is abuse and molestation issues. The question is, if the fact that [bloggers have] created some degree of change is worth the cost. At the very least, it's rechilus [gossip], lashon hara [derogatory language], and bittul zman [waste of time]. That's a high price to pay." From the Agudath's standpoint, preventing molestation and sparing children are wasteful and less important than avoiding disclosing and reporting true but disparaging information about others.
This same organization has been directing followers not to report sexual abuse without the permission of a rabbi. The New York Times reported that when Rabbi Zwiebel discussed this policy with the Brooklyn District Attorney who allegedly "expressed no opposition or objection". The Brooklyn D.A. appears to have been complicit in making sure that sexual abuse in religious communities is not prosecuted. On June 20th, a protest will be held outside the Brooklyn D.A.'s office to protest "the history of colluding with Rabbinical authorities to enable the cover up of child abuse in Ultra Orthodox communities of Brooklyn, NY. As a result molesters have remained free to victimize children at will."
While religious leaders would obstruct justice and suppress exposure of sexual abuse over the internet and the DA seems unable or unwilling to fairly pursue abuse that is reported, others would divert attention from the problem by extolling the virtues of the Orthodox lifestyle. A Hasidic woman named Chaya wrote What Women's Media Needs to Know about Chassidic Women in response to the buzz surrounding the internet rally, which women weren't invited to attend. Chaya's assertion that women who keep the Jewish laws of family purity have lower rates of cervical cancer and portrayal of lives of Hasidic women as glorious and fulfilling went viral. When I posted a link to one of the many responses to the article, strangers bombarded my facebook page with comments along the lines of: Stop trying to represent us; the real Hasidic women choose our lifestyles and are happy with it. I was berated by some for not being fair in disagreeing with Chaya's belief that she wrote was actually what the media needed to know.
Chaya failed to mention that she didn't grow up within the fold of the Orthodox community. When she bragged about her college experience ("magna cum laude baby"), she did not mention that in Crown Heights where I was raised Orthodox, the idea of even going to college was a foreign one. Those of us who lived through horrors created by oppressive environments like the one Chaya attempted to glorify are still struggling with our nightmares as the people who hurt us walk around freely without any accountability and posing a danger to others because a corrupt system is more interested sparing the community the imagined shame in addressing sexual abuse than in protecting its children.
Many people ask, or rather complain, why I don't just leave the community behind and let them live their lives in peace and do as they choose. Rosa parks did not leave her seat, and she did not leave Alabama; she stayed, and that taught me a lot. While I do plan to leave Brooklyn in the near future, I simply cannot turn a blind eye to problems I am painfully aware of, and I certainly will not disconnect from the internet.
The internet has been an invaluable resource for many of us who suffered abuse, oppression and torment in our communities. When Ricky Martin discussed having feared coming out, he said, "If someone asked me today, 'Ricky, what are you afraid of?' I would answer, 'the blood that runs through the streets of countries at war...child slavery, terrorism...the cynicism of some people in positions of power, the misinterpretation of faith.' But fear of my truth? Not at all! On the contrary, it fills me with strength and courage." The internet has been one thing that offered us strength, courage and hope; it allows us to know that we are not alone and, hopefully, others to be spared. The internet forced the issue of child abuse in religious communities into the public eye, and the reprehensible behavior of leaders who protect offenders is now coming to light and may be investigated further. The internet may very well spur change that will save those in religious communities, for which the only real threat is abuse and its suppression.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Marching in the Celebrate Israel Day Parade: Walking into the Lion's Den

Some people looked at us in surprise or shock, and others, in horror. A few parents covered their children’s eyes as we went by. I tried to disregard the slurs and middle fingers, but one woman refused to be ignored. She accosted us after the parade, berating us that we do not belong and should be ashamed of our ourselves. But, I was proud to march and represent LGBTQ Jews in the largest event in the world transcending movements and politics and representing Jewish solidarity; and, by and large, it was a wonderful success. Still, after learning that our group of LGBTQ brothers and sisters would be allowed to march in the Celebrate Israel Parade for the first time since its inception in 1964, I had been conflicted.

On one hand, I was thrilled. The progress made within Jewish communities towards tolerance of LGBTQ people has been been remarkable, and our being allowed to participate in the Parade was an historic symbol of the progress. Gay Jews had been prevented from participating openly in the event previously, and the negotiation of the terms for our participation this year was wrought with difficulties. This foreshadowed some hostility I anticipated not without trepidation. But, it was not fear of homophobic responses at the parade that gave rise to my conflict. However, the intolerance I witnessed and this religious woman’s unprovoked attack and unconditional declaration that we did not belong did sharpen my dissonance.   

I had been conflicted about marching in support the state of Israel. I’m happy that the state of Israel exists, and the Jewish people have a land that we can call home. Indeed, it has been my home; I had lived there as a teenager, some of my family come from Israel, and I have loved ones there. I am also extremely proud that Israel is the most gay-friendly country in the Middle East. Nonetheless, I found myself unsure about whether it was right for me to march in the parade when the innocent people in Israel find themselves without basic rights or even a homeland because of beliefs they cannot be tolerated and do not belong simply because they are African immigrants or Palestinians.

Growing up with an extremely limited “secular” education in a very right wing Orthodox section of Brooklyn, I was taught that the state of Israel was the holiest place in the world and that all the Arabs of the world wanted to kill and destroy the Jewish nation. Arabs were equated with Muslims, Muslims with Palestinians and Palestinians with anti-semitic terrorists. Fear of anti-semitism was seared into my heart and mind by my parents, teachers and community leaders, whom I looked up to while growing up in Crown Heights: “They hate us, they all do, and there will be another holocaust in America one day”. I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve heard such declarations. When I started leaving the fold of the Orthodox community, I approached the greater world with an irrational fear that I was hated as a Jew unconditionally and that, if the evil people of the world had their way, we would be destroyed and wiped out completely as a nation. But, it was not until I realized that I am gay that I learned what discrimination and hatred really are. Even before I came out, I felt shamed and tortured by my religious counterparts when I was outed at yeshiva at the age of 16.

I had not experienced anti-semitism, but I knew homophobia.

And, I am ashamed to know that some of my own relatives had been involved in anti-Palestinian violence in the rebels’ uprising before the state of Israel was established. Some in my family take pride in this heritage a legacy of cold blooded murder of innocent women and children in a town called Deir Yassin. For me, it’s a stain of intolerance, heartlessness, hatred and murder.

Despite what many try to deny, Palestinian people, who have lived in the region long before the nation of Israel was recreated, have suffered oppression, hatred, pain and denial of basic human rights simply because they are different and declared intolerable and not to belong. A woman recently argued to me, “There are 27 other Arab countries in the Middle East, why can’t any of them take in these Palestinians?” Essentially, her argument was that everyone living in Palestine who doesn’t belong should move to another country. Before the establishment of the state of Israel, it was felt the Jews did not belong in Europe and represented a threat, and they were forced to leave the countries they lived in or into ghettos and were eventually slaughtered. When I was younger, I attempted suicide because, in the community I was raised in, gay people did not belong. Still today, I am told on innumerable occasions that I should move somewhere, anywhere else than Crown Heights because I do not belong. And, at the largest event in the world representing Jewish solidarity, we were told that we did not belong.

Marching at the parade, the truth dawned upon me: the people who have actually oppressed me have been self-proclaimed religious Jews, who would preach love and tolerance. Jews in America today have every single right and protection afforded to other minorities. But, as a gay person, I face oppression and discrimination and cannot even marry the person that I love with the same protections and benefits as every other American. As I grew into my gay identity, I learned that being a Jew in America today is a breeze
even when I walked the the streets of Paris at 16 dressed in traditional religious garb, I never faced a single anti-semitic remark. But, today here in the country I was born in, my rights are denied because small-minded, intolerant bigots refuse to recognize the constitutional separation between church and State. And, I am told that I do not belong at  secular event celebrating Jewish solidarity.

Aside from the homophobic remarks and actions of some, the reception of those watching the parade was positive. Indeed, I believe it was a monumental achievement that we marched openly as a group. I knew that my presence at the parade was important because numbers speak louder than anything. And, thankfully we did have numbers; lots of us showed up and marched proudly as LGBTQ Jews down fifth avenue. Even as some watched in shock and horror, others may have been encouraged. Younger LGBT people who saw us marching knew that they are not alone, and that we do belong despite what others may say.

The woman who declared that we should be ashamed and did not belong at the parade criticized us about our t-shirts, insisting that she doesn’t walk around parading that she’s heterosexual. I had to observe, “you’re wearing a sheitel (wig); that’s your parade.”; she declares her heterosexuality and religious affiliation every day for the whole world to see, and I have no doubt that she does so with observant pride. Many religious communities deny our very existence, people like this woman seem to prefer that we do not exist, we have been denied representation in the event for decades, and LGBTQ Jews are largely invisible. Consequently, it felt imperative on that day to declare that we do exist, that we do belong and and that you are not alone on banners and shirts. But, the rainbow Israeli flag on my chest made me feel like a walking target, proud yet conflicted.

I stand with the state of Israel. But, I also stand with the Palestinians, who are living on the marginal territory without any citizenship or civil rights. My heart bleeds for the innocent lives taken. I cry for the innocent LGBTQ young lives lost because because of hatred, intolerance and feeling they did not belong in their communities. I stand for all people living under oppression all over the world. Just as much as I hope for LGBTQ equality, I hope that the conflict between Israel and Palestine is resolved before any more innocent lives are ruined.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Huffington Post: Dear Rabbi Shmuley, Can You Leave Dan Savage Alone?

May 3rd, 2012
Chaim Levin

This open letter comes after a few days of comments and articles written by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a proud supporter of gay rights and a dear friend of mine. He has lambasted Dan Savage for certain remarks made in reference to the Bible. Rabbi Shmuley went so far as to compare Dan Savage to the "Westboro Baptist Church of the left." Seeing this headline, I was shocked that Rabbi Shmuley was able to conjure such an analogy about a man who created the It Gets Better Project dedicated to helping save the lives of LGBT teens all across the world. On the other hand, the Westboro Baptist Church and other right wing fanatic groups have literally called for the death of homosexuals, likening LGBT people to pedophiles, murderers and many other abhorrent comparisons that don't even deserve to be mentioned. Dan Savage has never crossed such a line.

Savage did refer to specific verses that call for the murder of homosexuals as "bullshit," but it was in the context of speaking "as someone on receiving end of beatings that are justified by the Bible." Rabbi Shmuley and many others have seen Savage's remarks on the Bible an "attack" on the Bible. What these critics fail to observe is that we generally do ignore those parts of the Bible that Savage criticized. Savage is not the first person to question the applicability of such passages. In Judaism, the death penalties prescribed in the Torah have been suspended since between 30 B.C.E. and 70 C.E., and Jesus famously said, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her," in defense of a woman accused of adultery -- a sin to be punished by death according to Leviticus. Had I been speaking, I'm not sure that I would have tied such strong wording to the Bible, which many people believe to be holy and find meaningful. Nonetheless, Savage's point still stands.
The taking of isolated verses from the Bible as justification for hatred and vilification of LGBT people is complete and utter nonsense that is inconsistent with the Bible and religious tradition. The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 1:4) required that the death penalty be inflicted only after trial by a Sanhedrin composed of 23 judges and with the testimony of at least two witnesses of the act itself who must also have issued a warning beforehand that the act would lead to execution and that the criminal stated his willingness to commit the act despite this. Not even confession was accepted as evidence. Throughout the Talmudic literature, this whole subject is viewed so much unease that the rules in the literature made the death penalty virtually impossible to impose. Talmudic law on the death penalty emphasized the primacy of the commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:17). A similar appreciation for the Bible and the commandment to love one's neighbor was emphasized by Jesus in the Christian Bible. The commandment to love one's neighbor is one that seems often ignored by those on the right.
Generally, we all ignore the things in the Bible that today would be considered barbaric, inconsistent with basic morality and contemporary understandings of freedom and justice. Savage gave specific examples of things that are ignored, such as the Bible's justification of slavery, the prescribed execution of a woman if she isn't a virgin on her wedding night and many other things. Indeed, most of the world was shocked by the Muslim and Yazidi stonings of Soraya Manutchehri and Du'a Khalil Aswad, despite these penalties being based on similar ancient customs and religious texts. If we interpreted everything in the Bible as applicable today, we would be living in very different times, and I'm fairly certain that they wouldn't be good times.
Like Rabbi Shmuley, I was raised as an Orthodox Jew with the Torah as my guide to morality and life, but I do not believe one needs the Bible to teach them the basic tenets of human decency. It is not because of the Bible that I do not murder or steal. According to the Bible, all human beings were created in the image of God and have knowledge of good and evil. Such values are enshrined in the traditions of other cultures, both religious and secular. Moreover, the Bible does not prevent immorality, even in the communities that recognize it. I have seen firsthand self-identified religious people stray from the core belief system of their religion and commit terrible crimes against others. I understand that the actions of adherents do not define their religion, but at the same time, one cannot claim that the Bible is the only source of morality. In many ways such a position is offensive to all people, especially the good upstanding citizens of our world who have never had any association with the Bible or its teachings.
Rabbi Shmuley, I've been a welcomed guest in your home many times and hope to be in the future. I cannot tell you how incredible it was for me to be able to bring my then-partner to your house for a meal on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. You have opened the minds and hearts of people on important issues, and I hope you keep doing so. However, I think it is important to realize that Dan Savage has never ever spoken anything like these right wing groups. These groups use the Bible to justify their hatred against LGBT people. I think that most moral people would agree that that is wrong. To compare Savage to people who are filled with such hatred is absurd and reminiscent of the disturbing trend to misrepresent anti-bullying activists as bullies themselves. Even if this were the case, the Bible does require "an eye for an eye"; nonetheless, there is a world of difference between speaking out against bullying and bullying. Unlike those fanatics on the right, Savage never advocated for death, pain or condemnation of any group of people; right wing groups fight ferociously against basic rights and freedoms through legislation and widespread reach in conservative communities. In the context of being someone who suffered abuse justified by some by portions of the Bible, Savage referred such passages as "bullshit." While his choice of words may not have been the best, there is little to fault in his actual argument.
Dan Savage is a hero in the eyes of many people in this world who found themselves without hope or comfort during the most trying of times. I am one of those he has comforted and given hope.

Friday, April 27, 2012

On 40,000 hits and my upcoming 23rd brithday

While my blog has been somewhat silent over the past couple of weeks, the numbers and comments have been speaking for themselves. I'm fairly confident that within an hour after this post will be up, my blog will pass the 40,000 number, a monumental moment for me since I started this blog just a few short months ago.

I've been undergoing some very personal things and therefore have not been able to write as much as I'd like to, but I am working on some things that will hopefully give my dear readers something to talk about :).

My 23rd birthday is coming up on May 13th, this year in particular my birthday is significant for many reasons, most importantly, the incredible success that I've seen and felt over the past 12 months.

As I reflect on these events, both past and future, I am thankful to you, my dear readers, for giving me the ability and believing in my potential to go from "strength to strength" and take Harvey Milk's quote on giving people hope and turn it into a reality.

With much love,

Chaim Levin

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Huffington Post: Jewish Queer Youth Speak Out at Yale

April 23rd, 2012
Chaim Levin

The academic world, especially a campus as elaborate as Yale's, fills me with awe -- the libraries, buildings devoted to different subject areas and, above all, the energy of the thousands of students studying day and night toward various degrees that offer a brighter future. That world is something I had once thought I would never have the opportunity to experience. This past weekend, I had the great pleasure to get another glimpse of it as part of the warmly received Orthodox Jewish LGBT panel hosted by the Slifka center at Yale.
Two years earlier, I had spoken on a similar panel at the University of Pennsylvania; that was the first time I had spoken in front of an audience about my experience with issues of orientation and Orthodox Judaism. It was also the first time I had set foot on a college campus. Until then, the only thing I had known about college campuses was through TV and movies. I resolved that day that I would experience college first-hand.
As the time for the Yale panel drew closer, the room became crowded with people standing along the walls. This panel consisted of three others and myself, representing Jewish Queer Youth (JQY), and was moderated by Erez Harari, a Yale doctoral student and co-director of JQY. Sharing personal experiences of being part of the Orthodox community and being gay, we told about our journeys to acceptance of our orientations and reconciliation with our faith. Michael Rabinowitz began the panel by providing background on growing up in a "black hat" Orthodox community and discussing the pressure he faced by family and friends to get married to a woman; he was taught that his grandparents survived the Holocaust in order for him to carry on his family name by getting married and having kids -- a norm in many Orthodox communities. Justin Sprio spoke about growing up as Conservative Jew, finding his place in Orthodox movement and reconciling the seemingly incompatible gay and Orthodox identities. I spoke about my personal experience growing up as an Orthodox Jew, my failed attempts at "ex gay" reparative "therapy" and finally coming out and becoming an activist. Mordechai Leibovitz, the executive director of JQY, closed the discussion with how he and 10 others had formed JQY 10 years ago and the monumental progress being made in the Jewish world toward more tolerance and acceptance of LGBT people.
I started my talk on the panel with my experiences growing up in a community and school that does not teach basic, academic subjects, such as English language, math, literature, science or history -- the very foundation for higher education and indeed requirement for most jobs. Until the age of 17, when I was kicked out of yeshiva for being identified as gay, I had studied only the Torah and never had any substantial exposure to formal academic subjects.
Everytime I discuss going through reparative "therapy" to change my orientation because I believed I could not be gay and Jewish, I continue to be surprised by the shock of the audience. Some are shocked by painful and disturbing experiences of clients in programs like Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH) and People Can Change, which offer "therapy" and programs geared towards "the reduction and healing of same sex attraction." Many people are shocked to learn that such programs still exist. Others ask how I did not know about the potential dangers of such programs and how they have been proven to be ineffective.
This is part of the reason I discuss my educational background when telling my story. I grew up believing that any desire can be overcome with sufficient work and focus and that "forbidden desires" must be overcome by any means possible; I was taught that for a man to be attracted to another man was at worst sinful and at best an illness which must be overcome. This was more than enough ammunition against my young self. I felt hopeless. I desperately wanted to overcome my "problem" and be observant. When I was 18 years old, the director of JONAH confidently assured that after doing the "work" supervised by the "experts" (unlicensed practitioners known as life coaches), I would surely be able to move on to living a heterosexual life. He claimed that "thousands" had passed through JONAH's doors and have been "successful."
The utterly irresponsible and reckless position of groups like JONAH and People Can Change and religious leaders who recommend these practices, which have been condemned by the American Psychiatric and Medical Associations, serve only to bring more trauma to LGBT people by offering false hope and the dangerous, misleading and scientifically refuted notion being LGBT is inherently "pathological, harmful and destructive" and that LGBT can to "change."
But I had no way of knowing any of this at the time. My nearly two years of struggles at changing my orientation ended with me in a locked room naked fondling my genitalia as instructed and observed by my JONAH life coach, himself "ex gay." He insisted that removing my clothing and touching myself was part of the "healing" process necessary for me to become straight. I did not become straight, and my experience with JONAH were anything but therapeutic.
The reality that I faced in the hands of "experts" recommended by my insular community's leaders and without any pragmatic education is an experience that still plagues many young people today, both LGBT and straight. Sharing our stories with energetic Yale students, stoked my hope to overcome my educational handicap and attend college soon. Sharing my story, I hope dangerous practices that people are shocked to learn still occur can be stopped before others are harmed. Sharing our stories, the panel demonstrated real hope that LGBT people can find acceptance and reconciliation even within seemingly contrary, indeed, hostile religious communities.

Haven't gone AWOL - I'm still here :)

Hey Dear Readers,

I know it's been a while since my last post, but I just wanted to reassure everyone that I'm still alive and kicking (as you might have seen in other places) and hope to have a new post up soon.

We are on the brink of hitting 40,000 views, which is astounding to me, so let's just keep talking about how much you gottagivemhope and I promise to do my part and post something very soon.

With much love,

Chaim Levin

Update on Tuvia Perlman

On Tuesday, I published a Facebook post about a man named Tuvia Perlman, who worked as a teacher and a choir director in Milwaukee after mo...