by Susan Rosenbluth

Editor and Publisher,
Jewish Voice & Opinion; New York Bureau Chief
Root & Branch Information Services

TEANECK, NEW JERSEY, Yom Revii (Fourth Day -- "Wednesday"), 29 Kislev, 5760 (December 8, 1999), Root & Branch: The first Jewish outreach organization geared to assist homosexual men and women seeking to change their sexual orientation has been established in New Jersey.

Calling itself JONAH, the group intends to deal with homosexual issues in a manner consistent with Jewish principles as set forth in the Torah.

According to the group's director, Rabbi Samuel Rosenberg, the name was chosen for the Biblical prophet who warned the people of Ninevah to return to G-d in an act of teshuva, and as an acronym for "Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality".

Desiring to be inclusive, the non-profit group will embrace any Jew regardless of religious commitment or lack thereof. Its goal is to educate Jews about the causes of same-sex attraction and the possibility of change from homosexuality to heterosexuality. "We believe this is achievable if the homosexual struggler lives by Torah values, heals his or her unresolved issues, and fulfills unmet emotional needs," says Rabbi Rosenberg.

"Many former homosexuals are now married with children and lead more contented and spiritual lives." JONAH is also available as a resource for parents and friends of those who struggle with homosexuality. It hopes to provide support groups, a speaker's bureau for Jewish groups, seminars for interested parties, and referrals to appropriate counselors.


He points out that the Torah strongly forbids the act of homosexuality precisely because it recognizes the capacity of anyone to commit such an act. Although the Toranic prohibition relates to actions, not thoughts, JONAH recognizes the need to work also with individuals who struggle with homosexual thoughts and impulses but do not act out their homosexual fantasies or identify with the gay lifestyle. "Jewish ethics require us to offer assistance to those who struggle with homosexuality and to understand how to help men and women with same-sex attractions. In today's society, it is important to offer solutions to problems; otherwise, one becomes part of the problem," he says.

"We must repeatedly remind ourselves that, in the Torah, it is not the person, but the act that is abhorred. Moreover, even after the act, we have the obligation to promote teshuva and not censure by the family, leaders, and community."

The spiritual leader of the Elmora Hebrew Center, Rabbi Rosenberg has smicha from Yeshiva Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn. He is a licensed social worker and psychotherapist who was trained at the Family Institute of New Jersey. He received his Master's degree in social work from the Wurzweiler School of Social Work of Yeshiva University, and is currently an advanced-degree candidate at the Contemporary Center for Advanced Psychoanalytic Studies.


Over the past 20 years, several Christian-based support groups have been formed to assist those seeking to change from homosexuality.

Although some have been formed by individual Christian ministers or by ex-homosexuals, many of the major Christian denominations sponsor groups.

Before JONAH, Jews seeking to leave homosexuality had nowhere to turn within their own religion. Some, therefore, sought refuge in Christianity, and more than a few converted. The resources for a Jew seeking help and spirituality simply were not present.

Even in Israel, the only group currently assisting those seeking to leave the gay lifestyle is a Christian-supported Jewish-Christian ("Messianic Jewish") group based in Jerusalem, directed by Izhar Vardinon. "JONAH intends to fill that void," says Rabbi Rosenberg.


He points out that even though it is well established that homosexuality exists in the Torah-observant ("orthodox") community (The World Congress of Gay and Lesbian Jews has 48 organizational members and over 30 homosexual congregations; there are underground forum gay and lesbian support groups in the religious community and on the Internet), most religious, social, and medical institutions "have failed these men and women."

JONAH, he says, has broken through the religious community's "response of silence, cloaked in the pretext of modesty."

"The Orthodox community bought the mythical notion of the genetic propagandist that homosexuality is inevitable for some people. The afflicted individuals feel shunned, isolated, confused, and ashamed, with nowhere to turn for support, understanding, or assistance. Some of our brethren responded with a self-righteous or noble fire-and-brimstone reference of abomination without compassion or a helping hand or even a shoulder to cry on," he says.

While JONAH does insist that homosexuality is a treatable condition, Rabbi Rosenberg stresses that the group should in no way be seen as license for persecuting anyone. "Let it be clearly stated, without condescension, there is no room in this or any other society for witch hunts directed at homosexuals or for the denial of their fundamental freedoms simply because their nature differs from the norm," he says, adding that the "gay rights movement" has done a great service simply by bringing the issue out of the closet.


However, he continues, that does not mean that, in the name of tolerance, society should "succumb to acceptance." He maintains that accepting homosexuality as normal and healthy is to doom the afflicted individuals to a life in which "their potential for wholeness will remain dormant beneath their emotional wounds."

"The homosexual lifestyle, with all its social and cultural nuances, is also a matter of choice. It is a learned behavior which can be unlearned," he says.

For those with a proclivity towards homosexuality, choosing to abandon the gay lifestyle will probably be more difficult than simply learning to observe the Sabbath or the dietary laws, or even abstaining from premarital sex, he admits.

"However, our responsibility for outreach does not preclude us from reaching out to these individuals and to understand their struggles," says Rabbi Rosenberg.


He is especially concerned about the "depressed, despondent, and tormented souls who struggle with their homosexuality."

"What about those who have tried to explore an 'alternate lifestyle,' only to experience frustration, loneliness, and isolation? To whom do they turn? To whom do their parents turn for help, guidance, and support? To whom do they dare expose their sense of shame, failure, and humiliation? How many suicides must we cover up, how often must we turn a blind-eye before we hear the desperate calls for help? When do we act on the Biblical injunction not to stand idly by our brothers' blood?" he says.

Well-intentioned, but untrained rabbis do more harm than good when they tell homosexuals and their parents simply to accept their condition and abstain from the behavior, he says.

"They don't even know that help is available," he says.

Other rabbis tell homosexuals to extend the prohibition of yichud, being alone in the same room, to members of the same sex.

"What pain, what isolation, what damage. Especially when they need the closeness of their gender peers for non-erotic love, support, and acceptance. Learning how to achieve this can be most effective and therapeutic," says Rabbi Rosenberg.


He and JONAH dismiss the secular community's insistence that homosexuality is predetermined and, therefore, legitimate and natural.

That concept, he says, is based on a politicized 1973 vote by the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, following intense pressure from the homosexual lobby.

Four years later, 69 percent of the 2,500 psychiatrists who responded to a survey by the journal Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality disagreed with the vote and opposed removing homosexuality from the list of disorders.

"This political controversy within the psychiatric community continues today," says Rabbi Rosenberg. The formation of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), composed of more than 200 psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychotherapists, testifies to the ongoing divergence of views.

Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka, author of "One Man, One Woman, One Lifetime - An Argument for Moral Tradition", is on NARTH's advisory board.

Rabbi Bulka maintains that Jews who struggle with homosexuality have a mandate "to improve on who you are through the exercise of free will and with the help of mental-health professionals and spiritual advisors." "Despite great pressure from the gay lobby, NARTH continues to uphold the view that homosexuality is a developmental disorder and often a treatable condition," says Rabbi Rosenberg.

In fact, he says, the "misinformation that homosexuality is untreatable by the mental-health profession does incalculable harm to the homosexual struggler and to society at large." "Many ex-gays who have broken out of homosexuality say the biggest cause for their depression was the enormous pressure to accept their feelings as inborn and unchangeable. That way of thinking made them feel trapped," he says.


He cites authorities who maintain that homosexuality is almost always associated with a faulty family constellation, particularly between a distant father and son and an overly intrusive mother, whether real or simply perceived.

"Other factors may exacerbate the problem, such as poor peer group relationships and sexual molestation," he says.

In his scenario, the boy strives and longs to achieve the relationship he never experienced, but in an eroticized manner.

For a woman, he says, there is a corresponding inability to identify with what is viewed by the girl as a malevolent and malicious mother, and a father who does not respect the femininity of his wife and daughter. She seeks femininity in the body and personality of her female partner. Here, too, sexual violation may have occurred.

"Therapy can be effective in promoting awareness of the faulty family dynamics and the misdirected strivings for affection," says Rabbi Rosenberg, adding that no therapy "works" if it is imposed on the individual.


The most significant component of the homosexual's healing process may be found in a same-gender support group, he says, and this is a service JONAH hopes to provide.

"The aim of the support group is to re-establish healthy male-male or female-female bonding and to provide peer support and mentoring to rediscover their authentic gender and to better understand the expression of their legitimate love needs for attention, affection, and approval from gender peers which were unmet in their childhoods. In such a peer group, individuals learn that such needs can be satisfied without eroticism," says Rabbi Rosenberg.

To reach Rabbi Rosenberg, write to JONAH, POB 313, Jersey City, NJ 07303, or call (201) 433-3444. All inquiries, he says, will be handled "sensitively and discreetly."

Happy Chanukah from Teaneck,
Susan Rosenbluth []

Reprinted from the Root & Branch Information Services

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