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Ex-gay conversion therapy group continued to operate secretly after court shut it down

The group hid under a new name but changed little else.

Chaim Levin, one of the plaintiffs who successfully sued JONAH, an ex-gay conversion therapy group that continued to operate secretly after court shut it down. (CREDIT: Matt McClain for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Chaim Levin, one of the plaintiffs who successfully sued JONAH, an ex-gay conversion therapy group that continued to operate secretly after court shut it down. (CREDIT: Matt McClain for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

In 2015, a New Jersey jury came to a unanimous verdict that the Jewish ex-gay organization JONAH was guilty of consumer fraud for advertising treatments they claimed could change a person’s sexual orientation from gay to straight. Though the court ordered JONAH to shut down, a new complaint from the Southern Poverty Law Center contends that JONAH simply changed its name and continued to offer — and profit from — dangerous conversion therapy.

Just days after the court ordered JONAH to shut down in late 2015, the organization sent a letter to supporters announcing it was creating a new organization, the Jewish Institute for Global Awareness (JIFGA), which would “educate the public on the Noahide laws,” including the prohibition of “immorality and forbidden sexual relations.” The new organization had the same co-directors, Arthur Goldberg and Elaine Berg, the same office location, and the same telephone number as JONAH.

Using a familiar acronym with a new name is a tactic the organization has relied upon before. Previously, JONAH had advertised the “Jonah Institute for Gender Affirmation” (Old JIFGA) with more marketable branding for their ex-gay therapy programs. JONAH itself was originally an acronym for “Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality” that was later changed to “Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing.”

The complaint lays out the many ways JIFGA continued to conduct its business after being ordered to stop. According to its 2016 tax documents, JIFGA continued to facilitate ex-gay therapy through the same providers as JONAH. When the SPLC inquired about the listed expenses, JIFGA admitted that JONAH had actually transferred all of its assets directly to JIFGA, including the balance of its bank accounts and referral agreements with conversion therapy providers.

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Moreover, JIFGA continued to promote conversion therapy in other ways. Goldberg continued to offer himself as a reference for Orthodox Jewish mental health professionals who might desire to learn more about ex-gay therapy and “the reality (as opposed to the myths) of the JONAH case,” inviting them to reach him at jonahhelp@aol.com or at JONAH’s phone number.

JIFGA wasn’t the only new branding the group employed to hide its continued work promoting conversion therapy. It also started a crowd-funding platform called “Funding Morality” to serve those who have been denied access to other platforms “by those who are intolerant of a Judeo-Christian worldview.” Many of Funding Morality’s projects directly relate to promoting conversion therapy, including:

  • A series of animated videos explaining and promoting “reparative therapy” for those who have “unwanted same-sex attractions.”
  • A documentary about the late Joseph Nicolosi, often considered the “father of ex-gay therapy.
  • A memoir for a “former homosexual,” David DeJacomo, who testified on JONAH’s behalf in the case that led to it being shut down.
  • Scholarships for a Catholic course taught in Thailand called “Understanding Same-Sex Attraction,” which bills itself as “an excellent way to understand same-sex attraction in a way that is consistent with both the teachings of any religious faith and sound psychological principles.”

JIFGA also partnered with another organization called the National Task Force for Therapy Equality, signing on to a report submitted to the Federal Trade Commission defending ex-gay therapy. That report claimed people who receive conversion therapy see “a significant and meaningful shift in their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso Jr., who heard JONAH’s case, previously refused to allow such scientifically invalid “expertise” to be submitted in court. “The theory that homosexuality is a disorder is not novel,” he said, “but  —  like the notion that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it  –  instead is outdated and refuted.”

It’s worth noting that the “National Task Force for Therapy Equality” is itself a new branding for conversion therapy advocacy efforts. The group is lead by Christopher Doyle and David Pickup, two prominent advocates for ex-gay therapy. Doyle has several other fronts for his efforts, including “Equality and Justice for All,” which appears to advocate against bans on ex-gay therapy, as well as “Voice of the Voiceless,” which infamously attempted to hold an ex-gay pride in 2013. Notably, all three of the entities listed in this paragraph have used the same P.O. Box mailing address.

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Pickup has led several of the lawsuits challenging those bans, and also serves on the board of directors for the “Alliance for Therapeutic Choice for Scientific Integrity,” which itself was a rebranding of the ex-gay professional organization NARTH, which stood for the “National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality.” That name, however, was also a rebranding using the same acronym, as the organization was previously called the “National Association for Research and Treatment of Homosexuality.”

In other words, there is a very small group advocating for ex-gay therapy, but they use multiple different façades to inflate their size and importance. They also constantly rebrand themselves in hopes of appearing more sympathetic or to hide their anti-gay efforts. JIFGA’s attempts to hide from the court injunction against JONAH, then, are par for the course.

The permanent injunction against JONAH awarded $3.5 million in attorneys’ fees and costs to the plaintiffs. At the time, however, they settled on a reduced amount that was not made public. Because JONAH has violated the injunction, the SPLC is now asking for the remaining balance.

Efforts to protect LGBTQ youth from the dangers of conversion therapy have only continued to grow in the wake of the decision against JONAH. In just the past week, bans on the treatment became law in both the state of Washington, making it the 11th state with such a ban, as well as the city of Milwaukee. Maryland may soon become the 12th state.