Many years ago, I was meeting relatives at the airport when I ran into someone I knew whom I hadn’t seen in a few years. Someone who was a very active homosexual. I asked him what he was doing at the airport and he told me he was there to pick up his wife and kids. “Oh,” I said and, as if on cue, his wife appeared with two little kids in tow.
As the saying goes, some of my best friends have been gay so when I heard of a therapist who has worked miracles in helping formerly gay men and women successfully transition into heterosexuality, I was intrigued.
Adam Jessel, 45 and originally from Toronto, lives with his wife and four of his five children on Moshav Matityahu in Israel. He is a researcher, author and therapist with a private practice in Jerusalem. He specializes in marriage and relationship therapy as well as pornography, internet addiction and same sex attraction. He runs support and therapy groups for men who are struggling with homosexuality who want to (and many do) lead normal lives as married men according to Jewish values and law. He also consults for a support group of the wives of these men and is a member of NARTH (the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality.) Homosexual behaviour is clearly and strictly forbidden according to the Torah, which creates much conflict for many men who struggle with homosexual attractions and wish to remain religious Jews. “I emerge from our weekly group meetings feeling inspired. I’m so impressed by these individuals who want to live a life that’s consistent with their values. It’s something I’m very passionate about.” Jessel has a great deal of respect for the struggle of these men. There are a large number of people struggling with same sex attractions. Part of the therapy is learning how to reduce the same sex attraction and increase opposite sex attraction. However the therapy becomes more than that, it’s about greater self-acceptance.
“The journey out of homosexuality is about understanding oneself, recognizing who one really is and embracing it.” According to Jessel, the therapy is only successful when the client first faces and accepts his unwanted feelings. The task is not to look away from the feelings, but to understand and learn from them.
Contrary to popular belief, homosexual tendencies affect only about 1-2% of the population. The 10% statistic that is generally quoted is misleading. Dr. Alfred Kinsey, who’s responsible for that statistic, conducted a study in the 1940s but his sample was drawn largely from a prison population, which is not representative of the general populace. “Nobody takes that figure seriously,” says Jessel.
Jessel says that homosexuality reflects problems with emotional intimacy more than sexual intimacy. He is passionate about championing the cause of these people who want to lead a normal life and giving a voice to men and women struggling with homosexuality.
“They are not to blame for having these attractions. And halachically, there is no prohibition on having a homosexual orientation.” It’s the action, not the attraction that is prohibited.
Jews struggling to overcome homosexuality often don’t get support from the gay world or the Orthodox world. In the religious world it’s a taboo subject, in the gay world they’re seen as “in denial” and an obstacle to gaining gay legitimacy. Even the medical world, bowing to political pressure to accept homosexuality as a lifestyle choice and not a deviant behaviour, has ceased labelling homosexuality as a disorder. As a result there has been a withdrawal of funding for therapy and research and many gay people who are seeking help have found themselves between a rock and a hard place. In the notoriously liberal world of psychology, the very notion of providing therapy for people who want to transition from homosexuality to heterosexuality is unacceptable, because it suggests that there is something “wrong” or “less” about being gay, transgendered, or transexual.
Jessel illustrates the way society views homosexuality:
“If Reuven has an infatuation with Shimon’s wife, I’m allowed to help him. Certainly if he’s attracted to Shimon’s 12 year old son. But if he’s attracted to Shimon himself, suddenly, society tells you, you shouldn’t be treating these people.”
Jessel studied at York, McGill and Queens Universities in Canada. He has a BSc and an MA in Clinical-Developmental psychology. He has also done internships and research in a number of hospitals in Israel and abroad. “And we never discussed homosexuality,” he says.
He read a book by the noted psychiatrist Jeffrey Satinover, Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth where he looked at the science and politics involved in promoting a gay activist agenda interpretation of research in the media. “I’ve always been sensitive to misuse or misinterpretation of data and research especially with social and political bias,” says Jessel. “I get annoyed at how research and statistics can be abused for political agendas. About 12 years ago I attended a presentation given by Shmuel Rosenberg, a family therapist in Elizabeth NJ, on homosexuality. He had witnessed first-hand the benefits that can come from therapy, and encouraged me to get involved.”
For religious people especially, it’s not acceptable to live a gay life. They need to know there is something they can do. There is help and support in their struggle – behaviour and feelings can be changed. Jessel lets his clients set the therapy agenda and isn’t out to convert anybody.
“A major part of my work is about identity. It’s separating oneself from the issue of whom a person’s attracted to. The Torah doesn’t define people by whom they’re attracted to. There’s no word in the Torah for homosexual. It only talks about sexual behaviour. It never defines people by their sexual preferences. It’s about looking at the person. It’s how you deal with it that defines you.”
Jessel works on behaviours and goals. A person is a person separate from the problem. “We don’t deny the problem. Acceptance of the tendencies is an important part of accepting oneself with all one’s different pitfalls and behaviours. It’s not a reason to feel any less or different.”
A large portion of these men feel different from other men, a feeling of not belonging. “The work that we do is learning to accept and validate oneself as a man despite whatever particular attractions one might be experiencing.”
Homosexuality has many root causes and there are many different variations. An intellectual, non-athletic boy with an innate sense of aesthetics may have felt different from the other guys who may have teased and bullied him. He may have had a poor body image. His connection to his father may not have been strong or his father may not have been a role model he would have been comfortable emulating. His mother may not have been connecting too well with the father and turned to the son for emotional support.
“None of these factors guarantees that someone will become gay. A wide constellation of factors have to come into play to produce homosexuality. If any of these are missing the person may grow up with other challenges but homosexual attraction won’t be one of them. This is only one possibility.
Because they may have felt different from a very early age, some people feel very strongly that they were born with homosexuality. Since one can modify their thoughts and behaviour, it’s irrelevant whether they were born with the tendency or developed it early on. There’s no evidence that homosexuality is predominantly biological. It’s a result of a confluence of biological, psychological and social factors. Also men demonstrating very sensitive, artistic or introspective behaviour may come to see themselves, or be seen, as gay, because that is part of the societal stereotype even though it is a stereotype.”
Jessel works as a facilitator to help people make the transition. He works with both genders and is currently working with a woman who has been living as a lesbian for 25 years and now wants to get out of that lifestyle and get married. She believes she was born that way but that doesn’t preclude her wanting to change.
“There’s no gay gene. Human sexuality is a complex phenomenon that can’t be pinned down to any one cause. You can have identical twins where one turns out homosexual and one doesn’t.”
Jessel acknowledges the possibility that a person could be born gay, but after working with hundreds of people with SSA, he doubts he ever met one.
“Its like some people’s genes make it more likely they’ll become obese. Yet we all know genes alone don’t make someone obese. It depends on their upbringing, culture, actions and a host of psychological factors. And nobody would say it’s impossible to modify one’s eating, exercise habits and even appetite.
“The paradox is that for many men the path out of homosexuality requires a greater connection with men. The primary work is not working on their attraction to women but working on their connection with men. What they have is a great need to connect to men but they don’t know how to do it without the intensity and escapism of sexual fantasies or encounters which don’t really fulfill the need, which is why there is so much promiscuity in much of the gay culture. There’s a compulsive aspect to it.
“With women there isn’t the same emphasis on sex. It’s more diverse. Growing up they often learned it wasn’t safe to have a trusting relationship with the opposite gender.”
So, ironically both men and women can develop homosexual attractions because of something missing or unhealthy in their relationships with men.
“Men are able to have physical intimacy without emotional intimacy. A woman can’t easily do that. She needs trust. A woman’s sexuality is more fluid and can change spontaneously throughout her life. Studies show that most women who have lesbian relationships as adolescents become exclusively heterosexual when they’re older.”
Programs exist to help men achieve more bonded relationships with other men. Many men benefit from attending programs such as: Journey into Manhood, Call of the Shofar, New Warriors and special workshops run by JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality).
Some men attend these programs and for a few weeks afterwards feel they’re past their homosexual tendencies. This is because the connection they make with men is so powerful that they get a feeling of what it’s like to have their real need for male connection met. Some of these programs are partially staffed by people who used to identify themselves as homosexuals.
“If a young man goes to a warm yeshiva and for the first time in his life experiences positive male role models, who are sincere about working with him and genuinely care and he experiences a camaraderie and acceptance from the other guys, this can strengthen him though alone it will not be enough.”
Jessel is careful not to paint too rosy a picture. “Homosexuality is a very difficult struggle, one you can’t fully appreciate unless you’ve been there yourself.”
Because they feel that the mental health profession has largely turned their back on them, the trend among strugglers is increasingly to rely on support from those who have faced similar challenges. There are grassroots movements of strugglers. Many of them are therapists who have made the journey out of homosexuality themselves or have a close family member who has had this struggle and feel they want to help others. Information isn’t out there and people suffer needlessly. Due to the dearth of therapists, Jessel also counsels people over the phone, even from different countries.
“The Jews who have successfully dealt with this don’t exactly advertise it. It’s like being a convert. It’s something to be proud of but people don’t announce it because there’s a stigma.”
Many men who’ve gone through counseling with Jessel have gone on to have good marriages. “I wouldn’t advise anyone to enter into marriage without guidance from therapists and rabbis experienced in these matters. A good marriage is possible but it has to be approached very cautiously.” I would say that’s true of any marriage. “Often people think that the only issue is sexual performance but the fact is that most homosexual men are capable of being physically intimate but because they’re emotionally not able to be present in the relationship [not only a problem with gay men], this creates a whole other set of problems that can sabotage the relationship.”
And that’s where the emphasis lies. Jessel is helping people tap their potential for healthy, fulfilling and quality relationships as people and as religious Jews.
(The first in a series of articles on this topic.)
To contact Adam Jessel: call 972(0)546720336 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org