Once Upon a Gay: A Jewish Journey Through the Ex-Gay Movement

Published: November 21, 2011

Many people are surprised when I tell them I voluntarily entered reparative therapy at the age of 21 without pressure from family or religious leaders. I usually respond by telling them that during that time in my life, it wasn’t a choice between coming out and conversion therapy; rather, it was a choice between conversion therapy and not wanting to live anymore.

After completing yeshiva high school and attending three years of black-hat-style yeshiva in Israel and Brooklyn, I returned to my parents’ home knowing I had feelings for other men. So I did what any other religious Jewish boy in his early 20s might do: I called the local shadchan (matchmaker) to let her know I was finally ready to get married. After a year of interviewing young, unknowing women in their late teens in hotel lounges around Manhattan, I realized that perhaps I needed to work on getting rid of these attractions I had toward other men.

I sought the counsel of rabbis in Israel and Brooklyn (I would only trust the advice of bridge-and-tunnel rabbis, I told myself). As the first rabbi I had spoken to at the age of 18 told me, my feelings toward men were "just a phase," but when he still insisted that when I called him back at the age of 20, I decided to speak to further rabbis. An orthodox rabbi in Queens informed me that I just needed a sexual outlet for my feelings and that as soon as I’d found the "right" woman to marry, I’d be cured! Still not convinced, I spoke to another rabbi in Brooklyn, and after some deep thought, he mentioned that "everyone has skeletons in their closets, not just you." He further recommended that I not disclose anything to the girls I was dating, as I was forbidden to say loshon hora (defamation/gossip) about myself. I tried telling him that it wasn’t actual skeletons that were in my closet but me that was in the closet. I decided to ask one more rabbi, this one in Staten Island. After a long hour of going through all the possibilities of what one might do and what other rabbis have suggested, the rabbi flatly informed me: "I don’t know."

"Well, Rabbi," I said, with my eyes lit up as if I finally had the answer I’d been looking for, "that’s the best answer any rabbi has ever given me."

So, without finding the answer to a problem I thought needed to be solved, and with no satisfactory sage among the rabbis of New York City, I turned to the modern-day avenue for finding an answer to a halachic (Jewish law) issue that rabbis can’t answer: Google.

Amongst the sea of Christian ex-gay ministries found on the Internet, there was one Jewish organization that helped men deal with their "unwanted same-sex attractions": JONAH, or Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. JONAH was conveniently located across the river from me in Jersey City, N.J., and when I spoke to its director and was assured that I would be able to live the "normal and happy" life that I so truly wanted, I was immediately sold. That conversation in 2001 was followed by a five-year cocktail of weekend retreats, intense therapy, "bibliotherapy," journaling and creating non-sexual friendships with other strugglers and ever-straights (or men who are forever-straight).

As JONAH was a new player in the world of ex-gay ministries and not yet large enough to create their own weekend retreats, we hopped on the bandwagon of available Christian retreats, with a slight dose of Jesus-washing. I’ll never forget my roommate on a retreat called Journey into Manhood (even at that time, I thought that would make a great name for an off-Broadway musical), who was a Southern Baptist priest who was forced out of the church due to cheating on Jesus with another man. He insistently told me in his Southern drawl, "You know, Jayson, even if you do fully heal from homosexuality, you’ll never fully be healed until you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior!"

As faith and G-d meant more to me than my sexual orientation, it was a liberating experience being in a community of men who felt the same way. It was exhilarating to leave the life of being obviously the "only religious person struggling with homosexuality" to knowing that others felt the same shame, guilt and fear of having attractions to other men. In some twisted way I felt that these experiences were my own "coming out," even though I was now beginning a process of repressing my feelings.

Over the course of those five years, I began to shed my "gay identity," as I truly believed it was a politically created idea invented by gay activists to promote their abominable lifestyle. One ex-gay leader at the Love, Sex & Intimacy retreat held in the Washington, D.C. area, a seminar to help heal homosexuals, would start his speech by saying, "Gay lifestyle?! More like deathstyle!" I worked through therapy to gain confidence, shed body-image issues and work on correcting the classic triadic family dynamic (enmeshed mother, distant father, and confused, overly sensitive son) that resulted in my homosexual condition (so I believed). During therapy I learned how to love myself, love my parents, and feel emotions. I became confident, secure, and emotional.

I became close to other men around my age who were on the same journey, and often we would sit around and talk. I called the stage we were in "no-man’s land" — there was an obvious literal meaning to that, as we weren’t sexually active with men (or each other, to the dismay of most people who think that’s what happens at these retreats), and we weren’t attracted to women, so we mainly hung out with each other. We decided that we didn’t appreciate the term "ex-gay," as how can we be ex-gay if we were never gay to begin with? We spent hours one afternoon debating what to call our in-between status, and when we broke down the word "ex-homo" to "ex-mo" and said it a bunch of times fast, we realized that it sounded like "Eskimo." We then segregated ourselves to Jewskimos (Jewish Eskimos) and Chriskimos (Christian Eskimos), which further broke down into Episkimos (Episcopalian Eskimos) and Methkimos (Methodist Eskimos). We never met any Muskimos (Muslim Eskimos) during our journey.

I was able to learn a lot from my Jewish and Christian brothers on this journey of "change." I realized that many Christians who were attempting to change had an end-goal of celibacy, while the Jews had goals of being married with children. This obvious religious difference had much to do with celibacy being highly regarded and practiced in Christian culture, while Jews focus on biblical procreation (also known as "pleasing our families"). Therapy was never focused on increasing our opposite-sex attractions, and this made sense: the founders and practitioners of conversion therapy were Christians, and a Christian who achieves celibacy in his therapy considers himself successful. This is not the case for Jews.

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