Israel has become a gay tourist mecca, but many gay men from traditional communities are desperate to be straight and turning to conversion therapy.
Jacob Atkins

16 Aug 2017 - 11:34 AM  UPDATED 16 Aug 2017 - 11:37 AM

At 17, Yochai Greenfeld choreographed and directed a lauded high school adaptation of “All That Jazz” from Chicago, but as his schoolmates burst onto stage, premiering the result of his weeks of work, Yochai was winding through the hills outside Jerusalem, on his way to a retreat that he hoped would help him stop being gay. 

Yochai hails from Israel’s so-called national-religious community.

This community - who have a prominent place in Israel’s religious and political landscape - largely observe the Jewish commandments, wear yarmulkes and keep kosher, but are otherwise wholesomely engaged in the modern world. 

For many, marriage to someone of the opposite sex and pumping out kids (the more the better) is not just desirable, but the will of God. The first commandment in the Torah is to “be fruitful and multiply”. 

While the community is inching towards more openness to sexual diversity, many national religious men – even ones from fairly liberal families - freak out when they realise they have no sexual interest in women. They resolve to change their sexual attraction, or at least beat it into submission so that it will not thwart prospects of a “fruitful” heterosexual marriage.

“I felt really scared,” says Ariel Grof, who tried conversion therapy for six years. “I was under pressure, because of the thought that I was going to be gay for all my life.”

“I thought ‘I want to live in the mainstream, with the same values that my community lives [with]’. And I thought that God [was] testing me, so I thought ‘I can succeed, because it’s just a test’.”

He made the 5-hour journey through the desert from Israel’s southernmost city, Eilat, to Jerusalem, once a week. Each session cost his parents around $150.

The common thread among those who have experienced some type of conversion therapy from religious organisations in Israel is that homosexuality can be put down to a lack of masculinity—same-sex attracted men crave the masculinity they see in other men, that they don’t have themselves.

“Sometimes it’s about your father, what kind of masculinity you see in your home,” says Daniel Bukobza, an LGBT activist. “Sometimes it’s about sexual abuse. Again, the main idea is that something in your masculinity is broken.”

Ariel recounts some of the ‘homework’ from this therapy: “One of the challenges in the therapy was, when I am walking in the street and I see a woman, I need to think about her, to tell myself ‘my name is Ariel, I am a man, this woman has ... beautiful hair, beautiful eyes, she’s tall’, something like that, and ‘I don’t have those things, and I want them for myself.’ Like, she has beautiful hair, I don’t have beautiful hair, so that’s why I think about her.”

Unpacking the relationship between masculinity and same-sex desire is one of the goals of the three day seclusion to which Yochai was heading, at age 17, on the day of his Chicago performance. ‘Journey to Manhood’ is a secretive retreat held near Jerusalem, the contents of which participants are not supposed to discuss.

Yochai describes participants as being made to retell their innermost secrets and traumatic experiences to the group, in a highly charged environment that is geared to create an intense bond between the men, close enough that another participant admitted he met his first serious boyfriend while there.

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“It’s full of ceremony and exposition and ending,” says Yochai. “You start going through questions: why are you here? Are you really a man? And then you enter a room and the retreat begins.”

He also describes acting out psychodramas and seeing men frequently break down into tears.

Following Journey to Manhood, graduates can interact on an online forum and are encouraged to stay in contact with each other.

A few years later, Yochau recognised a fellow alumni at a synagogue he had just joined in Tel Aviv. He was married, with children, and a leader of the congregation to boot. 

“I see messages he posts [on the congregation’s Facebook page] and I can see just how far straight acting can go,” he says, adding that even “the way he stands, it’s as if he would go to a YouTube tutorial on how to look straight.”

The more controversial aspects of conversion therapy have recently been garnering more scrutiny in Israel, with opprobrium honing in on those who blatantly claim they can cure homosexuality.

Yet some who have tried to change their sexuality, like Yochai, see it as a valid personal choice, and also say that the hope it can give someone can be crucial if they are considering an extreme alternative, like suicide.

“It’s important to stress that for me, it was all from my initiative, I wanted it,” says Eli Schoenfeld, who first went to a therapist to seek help for his sexuality at the startling age of 12. “One of the times that I came out to my parents - because I did it a few times - they were like ‘Oh. So just be gay!’”

Eli describes, after years of on-and-off therapy, making a conscious decision to have sex with a man.

“I thought ‘you’re going to be 25, you have to do something’, I have to see what it is, I have to try. So, I very deliberately picked this person, set it all up, went into the room and was terrified, but then it was like oh, okay shit this feels really good. That was it.” 

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Eli says his therapist was non-judgmental about the revelation of his gay sex experimentation and was “a good person, a caring person. I think he really genuinely tried to help.”

“But I think that, now I’m not in it, you have to not let people believe that [conversion] is an option. Because all the people I talked to through him, and all the people that did the therapy, almost all of them were people who were trapped in this idea that at some point it’s going to get better, it’s going to change. And some of them had families, some of them had children.”

He says he was introduced to men who the therapist believed he had ‘cured’, but who confessed to Eli that they were still falling into encounters or relationships with men, even while married to women.

Efforts to outlaw conversion therapy in Israel have all foundered, but some are looking at using consumer protection law to chase those who outright claim to be able to change their patients’ sexuality.

All those interviewed in for this story are men because, as Daniel the activist explained, women’s sexuality is not seen as important or even relevant.

Unlike many of the stories arising from conversion therapy and the closeted life of Israeli Jews - who are unique in the Middle East by living in a country generally accepting and often celebratory of LGBT life - Ariel, Eli and Yochai had happy resolutions.

Many years after abandoning his Chicago performance, Yochai last month made the performer’s leap to New York, where he hopes to soon report good news on his Broadway auditions.