The Time has Come for YU to Condemn Conversion Therapy

By: Phillip Nagler  |  April 23, 2020

By Phillip Nagler, Jewish Activism Club President

Conversion therapy, also referred to as reparative therapy, is a series of practices that attempt to change the sexual orientation of a person from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual. The American Psychiatric Association condemned (for the second time) any form of conversion therapy in a statement in 2013: 

“The American Psychiatric Association does not believe that same-sex orientation should or needs to be changed, and efforts to do so represent a significant risk of harm by subjecting individuals to forms of treatment which have not been scientifically validated and by undermining self-esteem when sexual orientation fails to change. No credible evidence exists that any mental health intervention can reliably and safely change sexual orientation; nor, from a mental health perspective does sexual orientation need to be changed.”

One story — a single account from a member of the Orthodox community who was forced or strongly coerced into conversion therapy — would have been enough for me to write this article. Unfortunately, I have heard the stories of three gay Orthodox men around my age, 22 (give or take), who have gone through months of conversion therapy in recent years.

These stories are not mine to tell. However, what I can say after painfully hearing them is that they all had one commonality: none of these three men left months of conversion therapy with any change in their sexualities. They all still identify as homosexual and did not develop any attraction towards women. What they did leave with, however, are emotional scars that they will carry forever as a result of the traumatic practices that they endured.

While performing conversion therapy of minors is illegal in all of NY state, the New York City Council will repeal a city-wide ban on all forms of conversion therapy, which fines anyone in the five boroughs practicing conversion therapy in any capacity. This repeal will make it legal for “psychological professionals” to perform conversion therapy on any non-minor in New York City. 

YU students who are legally adults are included in this group of people that can legally attend conversion therapy in New York City. How will we know if rabbis in our Yeshiva are encouraging 18,19, 20, and 21 year old students to attend legal conversion therapy in New York City? The answer is we won’t. There will not be any accountability, not legal nor communal, if a rabbi decides that they want to send a student who is vulnerable and questioning their sexuality to a conversion “therapist.” These conversations tend to happen behind closed doors, and without legal accountability there will be no system in place to help a struggling student. Students at YU, most of whom have never had any real or informative conversations about sex and sexuality, can easily be coerced into attending conversion therapy, without knowing the traumatic and harmful psychological impact that it will have on their lives.

Before any naysayers argue that conversion therapy is actually not a harmful practice, or it just “doesn’t always work,” or that rabbis who encourage conversion therapy are just “trying to help,” I challenge you to read the 140 page report from the American Psychological Association that concludes that conversion therapy does in fact not work. I challenge you to talk to multiple mental health professionals. We call ourselves a community of Torah U’madda, but what exactly does that mean? How can we blatantly ignore the plethora of scientific data and personal narratives that show how horrible and evil conversion therapy truly is?

A piece in the YU Commentator last May, addressed a document published in 2010 known as the “Torah Declaration,” which encouraged gay people in the Orthodox community to seek out reparative therapy. This article was highly impactful, as it held the Roshei Yeshiva who supported this declaration accountable for their previous actions. Additionally, it pressured the authors of the public document to remove it from the internet (an archived version is linked in the Commentator article). This article informed the community of a serious issue that is present — one that has not yet been fully dealt with or addressed.

Removing a document from the internet and deleting divrei torah that encourage conversion therapy is a good place to start, but the Yeshiva has not fully excused itself for its history of supporting conversion therapy practices. The YU administration has a responsibility to do everything in its power to ensure that its students are receiving appropriate guidance from their professors and rabbis in all matters. Albert Einstein once said: “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” I am asking the administration, specifically Vice President Josh Joseph’s inclusion committee, to issue a statement that categorically condemns the practice of conversion therapy and that YU as an institution does not support the views of those who advocate for it. Additionally, it should include that any rabbi who encourages students to seek out conversion therapy will be held accountable and face proper repercussions. 

Silence is not enough. We, as a community, are not innocent simply because we are not publicly endorsing conversion therapy. Activism and leadership are about speaking out and protecting those in our community who are most vulnerable and need support. Condemning conversion therapy is not controversial. Condemning conversion therapy is not against halacha. So why hasn’t it happened yet?