Haifa – Last month, the Israeli Union of Social Workers (SWU) gathered for its yearly conference in a session that would prove historic for the profession. For the first time, the SWU took a stand on the issue of “conversion therapy”, a method of counselling aimed at changing the sexual orientation of homosexuals, in Israel.
In a statement delivered at the November 18 conference, the SWU declared that “[e]very professional” who respects himself and his profession should refrain from “practicing conversion therapies”.
But the continuing popularity of so-called “reparative” therapy sheds light on Israel’s struggle to balance its religious character with its reputation as a modern, progressive state.
The primary organisation that extensively advocates for conversion therapy is Atzat Nefesh, founded in 2001 by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner of Jerusalem. The group operates a hotline and sponsors meetings for Orthodox Israelis dealing with anxiety and depression stemming from sexual preference or behaviour.
“From 2001 until 2008, it was well-known and accepted that every religious gay who approached his rabbi or religious school was directed to Rabbi Aviner’s organisation,” Rabbi Ron Yosef, founder of the religious homosexual support group Hod , told Al Jazeera. D uring those years, he said, people who underwent conversion therapy paid 5,000 to 10,000 Israeli New Shekels (approximately $1,320 to $2,640) on average, with little success. “Of course, Rabbi Aviner promised 100 percent success rates.”
Rabbi Aviner declined Al Jazeera’s request to be interviewed.
The situation led Rabbi Yosef to start Hod, the Hebrew acronym for religious gays, in 2008. He collected testimonies from 291 Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox gays, and says his findings were troubling.
Nadav, 32, is a gay Orthodox who underwent therapy at the age of 18. He spoke to Al Jazeera over the phone, requesting that his family name not be used. ” I was sure that I wanted to take care of my feelings, my attraction to men,” Nadav said, noting he contacted Atzat Nefesh, which connected him with a counsellor. “He had no credentials; he was not a therapist of any kind. His assumption was that my father needed to be blamed, and we had to find out why.”
My father immediately told me to go to therapy. I told him 'They blame you,' and he didn't want me to go any more. Thankfully I already had an answer.
Nadav ultimately stopped his counselling, and years later, he married a woman. The marriage lasted just six months. After the divorce, Nadav, then 28, told his parents he was gay.
“My father immediately told me to go to therapy,” he said. “I told him ‘They blame you,’ and he didn’t want me to go any more. Thankfully I already had an answer.”
In spite of this, members of the Orthodox community are still being referred to Atzat Nefesh.
There have also been rumoured cases of Israeli men committing suicide after unsuccessfully attempting conversion therapy. Such stories prompted Rabbi Yosef to approach the Israel Psychological Association (IPA) several years ago, urging them ” to publish an opinion on the matter”.
The IPA subsequently set up a professional committee headed by Gabriel Weil, a religious man himself. Weil wrote the position paper on conversion therapy recently adopted by the Ministry of Health.
“We met psychologists strongly for and against [conversion therapy]. We met psychologists who said they were practising the therapy with success,” Weil told Al Jazeera. In spite of this, the committee found “the scientific evidence shows that the therapy doesn’t help change sexual orientation”.
One of Rabbi Yosef’s main concerns was that many of those presenting themselves as counsellors were not professionally qualified. Weil said while numerous counsellors administer the therapy, “we don’t know who is practising it and how many”.
Kamoha – Gay Orthodox Jews , another organisation that deals with the issue of homosexuality in the Orthodox community, provides financial assistance to those who cannot pay the total amount of therapy. But the director of Kamoha, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera the group will only send people to “professional therapists”.
The director also said Kamoha was not satisfied with the health ministry’s position, which indicates “they’re completely against all therapy”. While he believes conversion therapy does not work, “to say all therapy is wrong is incorrect, and to say it is all effective is incorrect”.
Asked about this, a representative for Israel’s health ministry directed Al Jazeera to a press release stating that people “should be warned of expected dangers to the public from such ‘therapists,'” and that conversion therapy is “ethically and professionally improper” .
Yaakov, 34, an Orthodox Israeli originally from a conservative Californian family who is a member of Kamoha, began therapy to deal with his sexual orientation at the age 20, due to a sense of “not going anywhere” and a desire to be “part of something pure”. Soon afterwards, he said he felt attracted to a woman.
“Since then, it’s been a struggle,” said Yaakov, who did not provide his last name. Yaakov does not believe that complete conversion is possible, but says his homosexual tendencies can be regulated.
When you decide what the results should be before the treatment starts, this is very bad.
Havruta , another organisation that provides support to gay Orthodox men, says it respects the decision of those who wish to seek therapy. But spokesperson Daniel Jonas told Al Jazeera: “When you decide what the results should be before the treatment starts, this is very bad.”
Adoption presents further difficulties. According to Jonas, it is “officially possible” for gays to adopt, but it does “rarely happen”. If gay couples pursue surrogacy, it must also take place abroad. Judaism employs matrilineal succession, and if a child is born to a non-Jewish mother, a rabbi must recognise its conversion. This leads to a complicated process of conversion in order for the child to lead a religious lifestyle.
“No rabbi will recognise a child born to a non-Jewish mother being raised by a homosexual couple… In our situation, you almost have to lie,” Jonas said.
Rabbi Yosef believes there should be new laws written to address the “grey areas” in the lives of gay Orthodox couples.
As for conversion therapy, he noted: “There is no such Jewish law ever written in the 5,000 years of Judaism asking someone to change their orientation. If no such law exists, why should you ask someone to change it?”
Follow Creede Newton on Twitter: @creedenewton