In response to the recent “open letter to Chaim Levin and gay activists” released by the petitioners and signers of the “Torah Declaration” (torahdec.org), I write this in the hopes of further continuing dialogue that will ultimately lead to more compassion and understanding for persons in the orthodox community who are gay. Although I find many of the points and claims made against me are unfounded, uneducated and not in line with the day to day life of gay orthodox and formerly orthodox individuals, I will do my best to respond as best possible to the questions asked and points made in this letter. Should there be any question as to who wrote this letter, I hope it remains clear that I, Chaim Levin, born on May 13th of 1989 am the sole author of this article and I take full responsibility for any statements, accusations, and personal accounts of my experiences with a reparative therapy group that caused me significant harm at the age of 19.
“We are writing as members of the Torah Declaration committee and just like you, many of us have personally struggled with Same-Sex Attraction (SSA). We know well the difficulties, the pain, and the fear involved in this struggle. We are sorry to hear that you personally had an unsuccessful and negative experience as part of your efforts at healing your SSA. As with therapy for any issue, many individuals will feel differently about their personal healing process and may experience differing results.”
As you will read on in this letter, the declaration’s authors focus solely on the “personal” successes that some of these people had in “dealing” with their SSA (same sex attraction, gayness), but later completely fail to acknowledge or mention anything about the significant hurt and damage that was caused to me and others under the auspices of JONAH (the group that this “declaration” endorses). The fact remains that an unlicensed, self described “ex-gay” life coach named Alan Downing manipulated me into removing my clothing in a locked room as he looked on and further encouraged me to touch my genitals for the sake “grasping my masculinity,” an exercise he said would lead me to rid myself of my SSA (gayness). In response to my protests that this “therapy” felt uncomfortable and flat out wrong, Mr. Downing reassured me that this was part of what I needed to do in order to change, and that if I didn’t comply, I would be to blame for the failure of my “healing.”
The real problem is that I’m not the only person that was subjected to such treatment at the hands of Alan Downing, a “life coach” who was assigned to me at JONAH and who faced no repercussions for the abuse to which I was subjected at his hands. Today I come forward publicly about and do not not bow to attacks on my “unsuccessful efforts” at changing. The world needs to know what fuels groups like JONAH and what has characterized my grueling journey and that of tragic many others who have briefly passed through JONAH on their painful journeys.
To me, this “Torah Declaration” hardly represents the Torah I know. This document maintains that the only option for a gay Jew is to try and change his sexuality as a means to live an “honest orthodox” life, then further implies that people today who identify as orthodox Jews and are gay are not truly orthodox by the standards of the people behind this declaration. The Torah I know, the Torah I grew up with in the Chabad sect of orthodoxy, and the Torah from which I lained (read aloud at the Torah) at my synagogue Beis Binyomin in Crown Heights the words “v’ahavta lereiakha kamoykha - you should love your fellow human being like yourself (Vayikra 19:18),” “betzedek tishpot amisekha - with favor you shall judge your nation (Vayikra 19:15),” and “v’lifnei iver lo tisen mikhshol - you should not place a stumbling block in front of a blind man (Vayikra - 19:14)” at my bar mitzvah the day I turned 13. The Torah I know painted a much more loving picture. The Torah I know recognizes that identity—frum, gay, secular, straight—are nowhere on the list of aveirot (sins), mitzvot (commandments), nor toevot (abominations).
Identity is as real as it gets. I think of the thousands of incredible people I've met over the past couple of years. People who are both Jewish and gay, observant Jews, Jews who are shomrei taryag mitzvot (observant of all 613 Torah commandments); Jews who are the reason I’m here and alive today. No one has the right to simply associate me with an alleged “gay [orthodox] acceptance agenda.” My goals have always been clear and simple: share my story so others need not suffer alone. I am boldly responding alone to your open letter to remind you that while some of you, including some I know personally, may be considered a “success” by JONAH’s standards, 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 “successes” aren’t enough to justify the hurt, pain, and abuse JONAH’s reparative therapy has inflicted on me and others like me.
You ask me how I can send such a “hopeless” message to young people. How can I tell young gay Jews that they could never live life adhering to halachic (Torah law) values. I wonder about the false hopes you gave to me and my peers that were failed by your insistence that we engage in this therapy? You acknowledge that some people are unsuccessful at change, and you refer me to examples such as my friend Jayson Littman. Do you really have any idea how it feels to live a life that of fighting against every other thought in my mind? Every day while in reparative therapy I only focused on my “attractions” and what they represented; I questioned my wholeness as a man and my masculinity; I questioned my parents for mistakes they made many years ago and even blamed them for my being gay. My mistake, you do know. You are victims of “SSA” yourselves, as you reminded me.
Reparative therapists claim that one can become gay or “same sex attracted” because of an overbearing mother or a distant father and encourage its clients to “blame” their parents in some instances for the fact that they had Same Sex Attraction. Is this a message of hope? Hope that JONAH program might work for “some people” without considering how we really feel? Meeting married men who were in the closet to their wives about their sexuality, and hearing their testimony acknowledging that they wouldn’t do it all over again certainly didn’t inspire hope in me.
We have spoken out and continue to speak out against your demands that people engage in such “therapy.” Such honesty may feel enraging, threatening, and even might feel like I’m attacking your fair “chance” at living an “honest” life, but ultimately, I’m only telling the truth. I’m telling the truth about what happened to me and many others when we tried to change ourselves because we felt that we were unacceptable because of who we were attracted to or who we loved. We were afraid of loosing our families and friends because of our feelings, and your “open letter” serves to attack people that choose NOT to engage in JONAH’s unscientific, unsafe and clearly abusive techniques to change themselves. Emphasize the word choice in that sentence, because as you yourselves acknowledge, one doesn’t choose to be gay, but one can choose not to engage in practices to change the foundation of our beings.
Your letter refers to two separate people that have made various statements about being gay and orthodox. Jayson Littman, a dear friend who you deem a “publicly identified gay activist,” once wrote an article in which he discusses his experiences while attempting “ex-gay” therapy, and he acknowledges that some of the practices conducted in reparative therapy were, in fact, helpful in other various aspects of his life. I believe that his statements are being taken gravely out of context to justify the means taken to convince people that reparative therapy can be effective. Jayson himself agrees that reparative therapy can be harmful to others and shouldn’t serve as the only option to gay orthodox youth and adults; in his words:
“It would be wise for individuals struggling with their sexual identity to consult with licensed practitioners to deal with this sensitive subject. The pain one goes through to reconcile their faith and gay feelings is certainly a tumultuous journey that would require the empathy and professionalism of a licensed mental health professional. My experiences with reparative therapy do not invalidate the experiences of other individuals who believe they were the subjects of unethical and inappropriate behavior while under the auspices of JONAH. Lastly, I am certain that the Torah Declaration, which asserts that reparative therapy should be presented as the sole option for individuals struggling with their sexual identity, will result in the harm, indirectly by others and perhaps even directly by harming themselves, of many individuals seeking help and guidance from the signers of the Torah Declaration.” -Jayson Littman
The letter also points to a blog post written by another friend, author of anotherfrumgayjew.blogspot.com, and he is quoted at having said that the struggle of an orthodox Jew to reconcile himself with God and his sexuality is truly great and can even cause one to question the validity of the Torah itself. To be honest, I’m not really sure why the authors of this letter chose to quote him in a letter against me and the “gay activists,” (more eloquently called above “the gay acceptance movement”) but the author of said blog makes the following statement me in regards to the use of his blog post:
"The blog Anotherfrumgayjew only seeks to provide a more liberal perspective on being religious and gay for those who may be struggling and find his thoughts provocative. As a blogger, the author does not condone any therapies done by unlicensed professionals and reserves the right to his opinions and free speech. He was never approached for a comment by TorahDec, and while it is unfortunate that others do not agree with his values, he respects their right to an opinion."
While putting in a great deal of thought into writing this response, I hesitate before deciding to divulge a particular experience I that had with Arthur A. Goldberg, the founder and director of JONAH, a man with a criminal record that he attempted to hide from the community when he started JONAH. I was, and still am, concerned that this statement will simply be seen as an attack on Mr. Goldberg’s character rather than a truth that will only serve to point out JONAH’s utter lack of professionalism and unaccountability, but I know that if I don’t tell the world about this, I don’t know who else will.
During the time I spent while working with JONAH, Mr. Goldberg violated the trust of three different participants by revealing their identities to me in an attempt to gain more information. He assumed that since we came from similar communities that knew each other. Although Mr. Goldberg wasn’t legally bound by any confidentiality agreement between him and these three people because he wasn’t directly “counseling” them, these three people trusted him as a director of an organization to provide them with “hope” and Arthur Goldberg went against all ethical standards by asking me if I knew them and questions about them because they had reached out to JONAH. JONAH claims that they keep to the strictest standards of confidentiality and are particularly concerned for the identity of its members but the fact that Mr. Goldberg was so ready to reveal that of three separate people only reveals the inherent corruption and danger of this organization.
At this point I think it’s quite clear as to why I have decided to go public with my concerns about groups like JONAH and the general idea of trying to change one’s sexuality. As is with any other halacha, we can’t automatically assume that one is in violation (even if one is in committed relationship) simply because they acknowledge that they are gay. Acknowledging that one is gay, coming out, is truly a long and difficult process, and although some might assert that coming out and identifying with the gay movement is giving in to temptation, sin, evil, they are wrong. Giving in meant looking myself in the mirror and asking, “Why am I doing this? What am I fighting for?” as I reached for fistfuls of Ativan pills in an effort to end my own life.
As young as I can recall, my romantic attractions to members of my gender have remained constant. I believe and hope that the people who have shared their similar experiences with me throughout their own journeys into coming out and moving on with my life will stand by me as I share this article and these thoughts. It is my sincere hope that through this letter, others will feel encouraged to speak out even more about their positive and negative experiences as a gay person. No one should be silenced. Let this letter set an example that you never have to accept bullying or intimidation from people because of who you are. You are beautiful and there is hope for you.
In no way do I attempt to debate or challenge halachic law. The authors of the letter refer to Rabbi Steven Greenberg, who conducted an orthodox-style wedding recently, as yet another “gay acceptance activist” attempting to changing Jewish law. These are not the issues that need the most attention right now. Although it may be difficult for someone to fathom, having focused one’s attention on a narrow slice of the Jewish community, there are so many Jewish gay people who live happily and are in healthy, stable relationships. Whichever way these people choose to celebrate that commitment is their given right. We can have the right, equal, and fair treatment under the government for the right to live our lives the way we want to and raise the kind of families that we feel is best.
To the signers of this declaration and to the other people that have attacked me in comments online for being part of an “acceptance agenda:”
Are you sure that this is the kind of therapy you want to be endorsing? Are you ready to be held accountable for the hurt you cause by making claims that gay people are in halachic violation for simply acknowledging who they are?
Are you comfortable with endorsing the abusive actions that take place in these unlicensed organizations that you promote?
Do you think it’s fair to tell people that their only option is to do everything they can to change themselves when there are so many like myself that were hurt by this school of thought?
To parents of children struggling with sexual identity:
I do not believe that reparative therapies such as JONAH can ever work. Neither does the mental health community nor the American Psychological Association. But even on the tiny, tiny chance that it could work, would you want to risk your child's psychological health by telling him that his inability to change is a product of his own failure?
Do you want to risk his relationship with you and with frumkeit (Torah observance) by telling him that the Torah demands that he submit to a cruel, abusive program?
Do you want to risk the chance that, upon his inevitable failure, you son may try to kill himself, chas v’shalom (heaven forbid), like some of my peers and I have done.
You would never let an unlicensed "Torah" doctor perform surgery on your body. Don't let someone who hasn't been trained do so on your child's mind.
This letter should paint a better picture of where I’m coming from and what I’m really trying to do. Not to debate halacha, or beg for your acceptance; I want to tell the truth, and I will never regret speaking what is true to me.