Four gay men are accusing a New Jersey counseling group of falsely claiming that it could make them straight and that homosexuality is something that can be fixed, CNN reports.
The lawsuit was filed against JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing) on Tuesday in the Superior Court of New Jersey by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The plaintiffs named in the lawsuit are Michael Ferguson, 30, Chaim Levin, 23, Benjamin Unger, 25, and Sheldon Bruck, 20, (all pictured from left to right). The suit was also filed on behalf of two of the men’s parents: Levin’s mother, Bella Levin and Bruck’s Mother, Jo Bruck.
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JONAH co-founder, Arthur Goldberg and counselor, Alan Downing, were also named in the lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, the men paid JONAH a minimum of $100 for weekly individual counseling sessions and another $60 for group weekly therapies.
The men allege that they were lured into a “deceptive practice” and made to undergo humiliating therapy techniques such as standing naked in a group circle while fondling each other. Additionally, the men allege that they were forced to visit bath houses ”in order to be nude with father figures.” Locker room scenarios were created and the men would be subjected to name-calling episodes that included the use of the slurs ‘fa**ots’ and homos.’
Ferguson states in the court document that he participated in one session in which clients took turns trying to break through a human chain so that they could get to two oranges, which were used to represent testicles, while being bullied with degrading lines like “you’re such a f*g, homo, queer boy.”
“They play blindly with deep emotions and create an immense amount of self-doubt for the client,” Ferguson told CNN. “They seize on your personal vulnerability, and tell you that being gay is synonymous with being less of a man. They further misrepresent themselves as having the key to your new orientation.”
Bruck says in the filing that his JONAH counselor, Thaddeus Heffner, faulted him for being gay because he didn’t work hard enough to change. Heffner allegedly told Bruck that being too distant from his father and too close to his mother was a factor in Brunk being gay.
CNN has more on another plaintiff’s allegations against JONAH:
Chaim Levin, also an orthodox Jew, was about to turn 17 in 2007 when he talked to his parents about his sexual orientation and sexual abuse when he was younger. A rabbi in his Brooklyn community suggested to his parents that they enroll him in JONAH’s program.
“You can change if you just try hard enough,” the suit said Goldberg told him. “You just need to work really hard, we are experts at this. We have helped so many people.”
Levin attended weekly sessions for 18 months at JONAH’s Jersey City, New Jersey, headquarters conducted by Alan Downing, an unlicensed JONAH counselor who calls himself a ‘life coach,’ the suit said. Downing is named as a defendant in the case.
“I was manipulated into believing that I could change my sexual orientation, but instead I was subjected to terrible abuse that mirrored the traumatic assault that I experienced as a young person,” Levin said at a news conference Tuesday. ” What I can tell you is that conversion therapy does not work. My family and I have wasted thousands of dollars and many hours on this scam.”
The JONAH lawsuit marks the first time that a conversion therapy facility has been sued, said Samuel Wolfe, a lawyer with the SPLC. The SPLC has identified at least 70 such program providers across the U.S.
Last month, California Governor Jerry Brown made it illegal for licensed counselors to use conversion therapies on minors under the age of 18.
CNN tried to reach out to JONAH but reports that it got no replies via email or phone.