(NEW YORK) — Four gay men and two of their mothers filed a lawsuit Tuesday 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 early 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. 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.
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 penises in front of Downing.
“It’s definitely cruel and unusual and doesn’t work,” said SPLC lawyer Sam 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.”
Arthur Goldberg said he “knows nothing about the lawsuit,” which was filed this morning, and referred ABC News 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 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.”
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.”
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. 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 ABC News that he had been abused as a boy and that he was “confused” by his sexuality. At a rabbi’s advice, he began 18 months of gay conversion therapy at JONAH.
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.
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.
Copywright 2012 ABC News Radio