Phil S. Stein
How I Ended Up at the Jerusalem Same Sex Attraction Discussion Group, p. 3

In fact, it proved impossible. However many of these people there are, they are either so few, or so deeply hidden in their new identities, or so fragile in them, that either he couldn’t produce them, or they wouldn’t participate. But, to this day, a almost a year later, Rav Simcha has never made such an introduction. No one has. Clearly people in therapy exist -- I later learned there are quite a number of guys at this yeshiva seeing one of the top homosexual "reparation" therapists. But no one, apparently, whom Rav Simcha could trot out as a successful "cure."

I knew that Rav Simcha wouldn’t let go, and he didn't. About every six weeks or so he would corral me into a conversation, or ask me to help him with some task (like saying tehillim at the grave of a mentor of his with a group of hippie hasidim), only to rejoin this specific issue. Then another Rav in the Yeshiva set me up on some shidduchin un-asked. He just informed me that I should go and meet such and such ayshes chayil at such and such location one motzei Shabbat! The man barely knew me, hadn’t asked if I were interested, ready, or even what kind of shidduch I might want – he just decided I was ready and he had just the woman.

The thing is: I actually enjoyed those dates. But that had more to do with my enjoyment of the company of someone other than a yeshiva bucher. The Rav had, in some respects, made a balanced and sophisticated match. Yet while I could love her like a sister, or a friend, that was it. Actually, not even that, because frum Jewish men and women can’t be just friends. But I could see this pressure was going to continue until I took the red heifer by the horns, and took some action which indicated to the rabbis that I was ‘dealing’ with this issue. I asked about support groups – wasn’t there one in Jerusalem? -- and was told that “Support groups are cesspools of self delusion, avoidance, and backsliding!” Sounded fascinating to me. So I hunted down the guy in town who ran the Same Sex Attraction (SSA) support group, sent him an email, and we scheduled an intake interview.


The offices of the SSA Support group and related therapists are located in a converted apartment on the fourth floor of a working class apartment building in a religious neighborhood which borders on an industrial part of Jerusalem. Low-rent, dreary shrink- and group-therapy- spaces resemble each other the world over, apparently: schlocky, worn furniture, bad art on the walls, dim yet garish fluorescent lighting, and enough dust and wear to be forlorn without being filthy. Yonatan, the group coordinator, met me in the waiting room, and suggested we do the interview outside, since several of the therapy rooms were in use.

A man of indeterminate age, probably latter thirties (big bushy beards often make precise dating difficult in Jerusalem), dressed yeshivish, yet still with the air that his leadership of the SSA group grew out of his own need for it, Yonatan led me around the corner to, of all places, a playground. We tried to find a place to sit amid the screaming kids and gossiping parents, insulated from the loud roar of traffic from the four lane road on the other side of the hedge, over which peeked the smoke stacks and silos of the industrial bakery across the road. A lovely place for an intimate discussion about homosexuality.

I knew what Yonatan needed: evidence that I was seriously “working” on my sexuality. Nonetheless, I wanted to be as honest as possible. Fortunately, years of obsessive/compulsive introspection, discussion with untold thousands of persons about sex and sexual identity, gay discussion groups at college, chatting online, writing stories and papers in psych class, as well reading untold magazine articles, books, and pamphlets had well prepared me for this. I related with effusiveness the winding and woeful, the rushing and rambunctious history of my sexuality. The full flower of my tongue blossomed in the songs of love and lorn, of my frustrated search for meaning and wholeness, body and soul amid the distractions of the diaspora. Now, as I came to Jerusalem with an open heart, mind, and hopefully, soul, I was trying to be mekubal to all possibilities, and wanted to explore this one. Ahh, the true penitent! And one gifted with vision and speech! Few experiences inspire the SSA therapist, Rav, and shrink as much. All the many and varied sins, from founding the gay foot fetish society, to reaching out to mislead people as the GLBT outreach coordinator for a state presidential campaign, all that raunchy, wild gay sex – all these averos (sins) could be turned to mitzvos, so many, many mitzvos, through the miracle of tshuvah. And these great skills, this great understanding and awareness, could be harnessed for the service of G-d.

I made it into the group.

SSA meetings, though occasionally verging on tedious, were always fascinating for the revelations and insights into the participants. The mental two-step of denial and repression is a favorite subject of mine, and always close to the surface at these affairs. Six to eight guys, sitting around in a small room, going through the formal report on last week’s session, followed by check-ins, each guy’s brief (under five minute) recollection of the major events and issues of the previous week. These typically served as starting points for general group discussion. The guys were mostly in their early and mid 20s -- there were one or two guys in their 30s, and me. Several were yeshiva buchers, several married, several trying to get married. I rated myself as one of the more eligible men in the group: handsome, charming, well spoken, even eloquent, well dressed, well coiffed -- all good prospects for parnassa. To my disappointment, however, these guys seemed to really mean it. The married guys were essentially there to salvage what sounded (from their dismal descriptions) like desperate, miserable, conflicted marriages which hung on the edge of various precipices, not least their own tortured sexual identities. The rest were merely tormented. I was intrigued to see how much acting out there was even in this discussion group. Subtle sexual signals flowed between us, it seemed: half-hidden staring, verbal teasing, the ebb and flow of acknowledgement and identification with each anecdote, each word sometimes. All performed in this dreary fishbowl.

Cellphones frequently interrupted -- the worst offender of all being that of the leader, Yonatan, whose own life, it turned out, was in worse shape than perhaps anyone else’s in the group. Calls regarding his never ending issues with his children, with caretakers, etc., were always taken, even in the middle of a conversation.

Afterwards, those interested, usually two thirds of the group, would head off to a small food court in a mall next to the Central Bus Station for a meal and gossip. This was my favorite part of each meeting. Here I could be freer in my stated perspectives, in my questions of dogma, in interpretations of what people said and did.

By the fourth or fifth meeting, I had finally been given the task of making next weeks report on the just ended session. I wrote my report, including in brackets things I noted to myself but was unsure I wanted to share with the group. You might imagine the scene. Read on….

The bare bulb shines more piercingly than before, its naked filament a small, angry, endless glare, blinding as much as revealing.

I arrive at 8:20, afraid I might, as usual, be late. But as I enter the almost-empty room, I remember that the group is both Jewish and gay. We were on SSA time. There are only two people in the room. Someone’s phone beeps.

The report by Mordechai, or as I have dubbed him to myself, The Queen of England, seems, as typical, laced with his frustrated, ever-purple desires, and is marked by a somewhat effeminate self-presentation, around which dances some kind of never-consummated, neurotic ballet of denial. I have difficulty remembering Mordechai.’s name, in favor of my shorthand for him, and worry that I might call him "Your Highness" by mistake. Middle aged, appearing to be somewhere in his 40s, paunching, grey, yet with one of those classically English ever-bashful faces, ready to flush at a moment’s notice. I’m fascinated that he’s so open about his sexual fantasies in this group, and wonder if it might be part of the game for him, as if he can't get off by actually having sex, but can by talking about it… here, with us. His reports feel like little lust letters as well as ‘dear mom’s’, masturbatory and exhibitionistic in their exposed titillation and frustration. Very autoerotic, except that they cease to be auto- when shared with the group. This week’s effort is particularly interesting, as he prefaces his report with his feelings about the recent London bombings: an almost inevitable “I told you so” schadenfreude that I’d heard from a few other bitter Jerusalemites. Something like how I feel when talking about this group. Otherwise he reported on his frustration with a change at his job, and on his success at surviving his insecurities about having to change a flat tire in front of his family.

Mordechai ends his report with a conversation-provoking comment about how he always introduces his reports with an apology. Discussion on apologetics ensues, with focus on what an immasculine and emasculating behavior it is. We consider how much more powerful and empowering it is to simply say what you think and mean, and deal with the consequences. More often than not, we conclude, people will accept you, particularly when you’re confident in your self presentation. I think: why not simply present yourself as happy, confident, and self-accepting of your homosexuality? Except for in Jerusalem, it’s been a winning tactic most of my life. On the other hand, in this town you can be an obvious queen and confidently present yourself as straight, and no one will say a thing to the contrary.

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Images: Orly Maiberg

November 2005

The Jerusalem Same-Sex Attraction Group
Phil S. Stein

The Second Coming of Yeshayahu Leibowitz
Avi Steinberg

An Account of the Saltscape
Joshua Cohen

Fresh Baked Bread
Jay Michaelson

Out of the Depths
Lorna Knowles Blake

Adam Lavitt

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