A 20-year-old religious Zionist yeshiva student from Jerusalem, who asked to remain anonymous, said he wanted to cry when he heard Education Minister Rabbi Rafi Peretz say last week that he recommends LGBT people undergo conversion therapy.
His reaction was similar to that of many LGBT people who have suffered through conversion therapy, a multifaceted form of psychotherapy that attempts to “convert” a gay person to heterosexuality.
Shay Bramson, deputy director of the religious gay support and advocacy group Havruta, said he was “very angry. It was really stupid because he’s not a physician, he’s not a social worker, he’s not a therapist in any way – and yet he claimed to understand and know how to do [conversion therapy] and that he himself performed conversion therapy, although he wasn’t so clear about that.” He pointed out that as a minister, parents might respect him and therefore choose to send their kids to such therapy.
Conversion therapy has been called “dangerous” and “ineffective” by Israeli psychological associations, Bramson said.
Bramson himself is gay and religious, and said that growing up he struggled with his sexuality, thinking that “a gay man is a very bad person… God doesn’t want it and I wanted to be very close to God. I wanted to be very religious; I was very religious.”
He was also afraid of how those around him would react. Therefore, he chose to try conversion therapy at Atzat Nefesh, an organization he found through the Internet.
Atzat Nefesh was wary at first to treat him since he was only 13 and a half, and it is illegal to treat a minor without parental consent. Bramson emphasized that he was treated by a psychotherapist who was a professor at Bar Ilan University, although he knew that some people who had “enjoyed the services” of conversion therapy were consulted by people who weren’t psychotherapists and who had no academic or professional license or education.
During therapy, they emphasized traumatic events, and told him that he had a very masculine mother and that his father was absent.
”He tried to put the narrative that would make sense [as to] why I’m gay,” Bramson explained. “They looked for criminal tendencies in the family and addiction. I didn’t feel like it actually fit my story.”
Bramson told The Jerusalem Post that part of the therapy was “to punish myself and to give myself penalties if I think about boys.”
He was also warned that being gay is not okay – not just religiously, but also because “gay people are often secular and live in Tel Aviv, and they have AIDS and other sexual diseases, and were lonely and suicidal and have no family.”
“I didn’t know any of this… so I actually believed him,” Bramson explained, noting that he was also scared that if his parents found out that he was gay they would kick him out of the house.
“I would have no life anymore,” he said.
Around that same time, they were learning in yeshiva about a rule in Jewish law that in certain cases, you must choose to die rather than transgress a prohibition, which led Bramson to contemplate suicide. “I tried to do it and, luckily, I failed.”
THE ANONYMOUS 20-year-old yeshiva student’s story is more modern, but not so different. When he was 13, he first understood that he was gay. He kept it inside until at age 19, when he decided to try conversion therapy.
People in the religious Zionist community “believe that if you don’t try conversion therapy, you’re not religious,” the student explained. “Conversion therapy is in the DNA of religious Zionism… [and] a form of psychological terrorism.
“There’s a lot of anger at your parents and shouting,” he continued. “It was explosive.”
The therapists “tell you that if you work until the end, you’ll get out of being gay, but since this isn’t the case, they end up opening deep wounds and not closing them,” the student said. “At the end of a day of therapy, you would simply cry for hours.”
He said that he thought it was just not working for him in the beginning and that this feeling was just part of the therapy – until after a few months he realized that the reason he felt bad was because it was not working.
In a Facebook post, Ze’ev Goren, 20, explained that “Being a gay religious Jew in the [religious] community is one dimensional. ‘You’re gay? You’re not a part of it.’
“There’s no issue with conversion therapy per se,” wrote Goren, “but these treatments are based on lies. Throughout every treatment, they say, ‘you have a choice how to live’ – but you don’t. ‘You have a choice in what to believe’ – but you don’t.”
In other words, he explained that in the religious community, one who chooses to live as openly gay is ostracized for being different.
“The platform is simple: Live like us or die,” wrote Goren, explaining that conversion therapy is the choice for people who feel helpless and afraid of being out of the closet, and hence kicked out of their community.
Furthermore, those interviewed said that conversion therapy has had lasting effects on them.
“Suicidal thoughts scour your soul and leave wounds on you that affect your whole life afterwards,” said Bramson. “Depression, self-hatred, suicidal thoughts: That’s what I was left with. Even 16 years after this, it still affects me today. Not the exact feeling of self-hatred – now I have self-confidence and a new identity – but still things affect you.”
According to the student, the conversion therapists keep an eye on anyone who goes through the process and even afterwards.
“They tail you to make sure you’re on track and that you’re not speaking trash about the therapy,” he explained.
After his initial comments in support of conversion therapy, Peretz clarified that he would never force anyone to do conversion therapy, but would just present it as a viable option. Later, he denied that he supports conversion therapy, saying: “I know that conversion therapy is illegitimate and severe. This is my unambiguous position.”
Neither the clarification nor the retraction made the original statement any less harmful, Bramson and the others told the Post.
“I wasn’t forced to go to conversion therapy, I wanted to do it,” explained Bramson. “Still, it was dangerous for me.”
He emphasized that the issue “is not a black and white option of being religious and straight or being gay and secular. There is a very healthy, happy and growing community of religious LGBT people in Israel. They’re accepted in their communities and synagogues; they’re happy.
“It’s not the end of the world,” he continued. “It will be better if your kid will be gay and alive and happy, than in the closet and hating himself – or marrying a woman [based] on lies without her knowing about the sexuality orientation of her husband.”
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