When most people think of so-called “ex-gay” ministries they associate them with socially conservative Christian groups, like Exodus International and People Can Change. The vast majority of these ministries are affiliated with conservative Christianity, but a recent article in Heeb Magazine by He’bro founder Jayson Littman shines a light on JONAH, an “ex-gay” program aimed at Orthodox Jews.
JONAH, which stands for “Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality,” is a fairly small player in the “ex-gay” world. Jews make up just shy of two percent of the United States’ population and only 10% of American Jews are Orthodox, so the demand for Jewish “ex-gay” programs is very small. In the article, Littman discusses other reasons that Orthodox Jewish “ex-gay” programs are different from their Christian counterparts, differences he experienced firsthand. When Littman started JONAH’s program at the age of 21, it was so small that they could not afford their own retreat space and joined People Can Change’s Journey Into Manhood retreats. There, Littman realized that his desire to change his sexual orientation stemmed from a different place than that of his Christian friends:
My Christian brothers idealized the concept of surrendering their feelings to Jesus, while Jews have always instilled the concept of struggling with God and free choice. Christians were motivated to change because if they were gay, they weren’t Christian. Jews were motivated to change because if they were gay, their mothers wouldn’t get grandchildren.
Although People Can Change professes no religious connection, it is clear from Littman’s experience that the vast majority of Journey Into Manhood attendees are Christian and seek to change their sexual orientation because they believe that being gay is in direct conflict with their religious faith.
It took five years of trying to make JONAH’s program work for Littman to realize that it hadn’t. It was, however, the self-confidence he had gained through five years of therapy that allowed him to “proudly come out as a gay man.” Littman’s experience of “ex-gay” programs from an Orthodox Jewish perspective is very different from the portrayals in conservative Christian spheres. Although he ultimately rejected the “transition” that JONAH claims to encourage, Littman believes that the Orthodox Jewish community has taken some steps towards accepting gay and lesbian Jews; acknowledging that one can be both gay/lesbian and an Orthodox Jew is a first step.
After leaving JONAH’s program, Littman founded He’bro, an organization that creates and promotes events aimed at bringing together LGBT Jews at all levels of observance and affiliation. His mission is to “bring his background in Jewish and gay activism together to create a community where LGBT Jews will feel comfortable at any level of involvement.” He’bro events usually center on important Jewish holidays and are tailored to acknowledge the place of LGBT people within the greater Jewish community. JONAH first allowed Littman to see that he could be gay and still be Jewish, but it could not help him live openly as a gay man and an Orthodox Jew. In contrast, He’bro celebrates the LGBT community’s place in Jewish culture.