Nov. 27, 2012— -- Four gay men and two of their mothers filed a lawsuit today against a New Jersey conversion therapy group that claims to rid men of same-sex attractions and turn them straight.
The lawsuit, filed in Superior Court of New Jersey Hudson County, alleges that methods used by the Jersey City-based Jews Offering New Alternatives to Healing (JONAH) do not work and constitute fraud under the state's consumer protection laws.
Arthur Goldberg, JONAH's co-director, and Alan Downing, a "life coach" who provides therapy sessions, were also named in the suit.
The plaintiffs include Michael Ferguson, Benjamin Unger, Sheldon Bruck and Chaim Levin, all of whom used the services of JONAH when they were in their teens or young 20s.
Two of the men's mothers, Jo Bruck and Bella Levin, who paid for therapy sessions that could cost up to $10,000 a year, were also plaintiffs.
One of the plaintiffs alleges that therapy sessions that involved a virtual "strip tease" in front of an older male counselor, as well as reliving abuse and homophobia were "humiliating."
They are seeking declaratory, injunctive and an undisclosed amount of monetary relief, as well as court costs, according to the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs have received legal help from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which claims in the lawsuit that conversion therapy is a dangerous practice that has been "discredited or highly criticized" by every major American medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional organization.
Three of the young plaintiffs are from an ultra orthodox Jewish background; Ferguson came from a Mormon background and met Downing at a "Journey Into Manhood" retreat, according to the lawsuit.
JONAH appears to cater to orthodox Jews, but its methods "do not have a strong religious aspect," according to SPLC lawyer Sam Wolfe.
The lawsuit alleges that some of the methods used included: telling boys to beat a pillow, the "effigy of the client's mother," with a tennis racket; encouraging "cuddling" between younger clients and older male counselors; and even instructing attendees to remove their clothing and hold their penis in front of Downing.
Attendees were also subjected to ridicule as "faggots" and "homos" in mock locker room and gym class role playing, according to the lawsuit.
"It's definitely cruel and unusual and doesn't work," said Wolfe. "They are peddling bogus techniques that have no foundation in science and are basically ridiculous and even harmful."
Wolfe paraphrased JONAH's message as: "All you have to do is put in the work to overcome your sexual attractions. If you follow our program your true orientation emerges and will turn you into a straight person."
"Often if what the conversion therapist tells them doesn't work, it's their fault," Wolfe added.
In 2008, when the plaintiffs were seeking help from JONAH, the cost of an individual therapy session was $100 and for a group session, $60. JONAH also "strongly pushed" attending weekend retreats that could cost as much as $700, said Wolfe.
Arthur Goldberg said he "knows nothing about the lawsuit," which was filed this morning, and referred ABCNews.com to JONAH's website.
"We have a lot of people who were a success and were healed," he said of JONAH's 14 years in service. "Hundreds of the clients we serve are satisfied ... Our therapy is very conventional."
When asked about the group's practices, he said, "I can't tell you about the methodology." Goldberg admitted he had "no background specifically in counseling."
"I am the administrator," he said. "I used to teach family law."
When asked about instructing boys to take off their clothes, he said, "I know nothing about that."
Goldberg also said he had "no idea" how to reach Downing because he was an "independent contractor."
According to JONAH's mission statement on its website, the nonprofit group is "dedicated to educating the world-wide Jewish community about the social, cultural and emotional factors which lead to same-sex attractions."
"Through psychological and spiritual counseling, peer support, and self-empowerment, JONAH seeks to reunify families, to heal the wounds surrounding homosexuality, and to provide hope," the statement reads.
JONAH's Goldberg, who runs the business side of the nonprofit, says on the website that "change from homosexual to heterosexual is possible … homosexuality is a learned behavior which can be unlearned, and that healing is a lifelong process."
According to the lawsuit, JONAH cites the "scientific" work of Joseph Nicolosi, one of the primary proponents of conversion therapy and Richard A. Cohen, who was permanently expelled from the American Counseling Association in 2002 for "multiple ethical violations."
Nicolosi's methodology is based on the belief that a weak father-son relationship and a dominating mother contribute to homosexuality. He advocates "rough and tumble games," as well as father-son showers, according to the lawsuit.
Cohen uses a technique called "bioenergetics" that includes having male patients beat a pillow, which represents their mother, as a way of stopping same-sex attraction, according to the lawsuit.
Conversion therapists also cite child abuse and bullying as a "primary cause" of homosexuality, according to the lawsuit.
APA Calls Gay Conversion Therapy Risky
The American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization, among other mental health groups, have cited the potential risks of reparation therapy, including "depression, anxiety [and] self-destructive behavior," according to the lawsuit.
Chaim Levin, the most vocal of the plaintiffs, is now 23 and a gay rights advocate who writes a blog, Gotta Give 'Em Hope.
He grew up in a Jewish ultra orthodox community in Brooklyn where religious leaders threw him out of the Hebrew-speaking yeshiva at the age of 17, when they learned he was gay.
Levin told ABCNews.com that he had been abused as a boy and that he was "confused" by his sexuality and took a rabbi's advice and began 18 months of gay conversion therapy at JONAH.
[Levin filed a civil lawsuit against his cousin in July, alleging he was abused for three years from the time he was 6.]
When Levin met co-director Goldberg, he said the defendant told him JONAH could change his sexual orientation, "as long as I tried hard enough and put enough effort into it."
"He told me, 'You will marry a woman and have a straight life,'" said Levin.
"Given where I came from, with three older siblings who were married with kids and not knowing any gay people or English, I was sure I could change," he said. "That was the theology."
Levin first did a retreat with Downing, then saw him weekly at therapy sessions in Jersey City.
"A lot of the therapy involves reliving the experience," he said. Levin alleges he was forced to relive the sexual abuse by his cousin, "with no counseling afterwards."
But the most "humiliating" experience, the one that Levin alleges made him quit therapy, was being asked by Downing to take off his clothes, article by article and told to touch his "private parts" -- to hold his penis in front of a mirror to "be in touch with my masculinity."
"I told him I wasn't comfortable, but I desperately wanted to change and was ready to do anything," said Levin. Afterward, he said he felt "degraded and violated."
Today, Levin no longer identifies as orthodox, but said his parents have been "supportive" of the lawsuit.
Some Jewish denominations and many congregations are inclusive of homosexual congregants, and even New York's orthodox communities are more open-minded now, according to Levin.
"I had gone for help and they had misrepresented themselves," he said.