When Chaim Levin first met Benjy Unger almost 10 years ago, Chaim immediately wanted to be friends. "He was like one of those bros from high school that was just so regular and nobody would guess that he’s gay," Chaim tells me.
Chaim and Benjy grew up in Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn, but they didn't meet until they signed up for a therapy program then called JONAH, or Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. Chaim was 18, and Benjy was 20. Both were attracted to men, and they sought out the program hoping to become straight.
"It was like I struck gold," Benjy remembers. "I finally found my messiah. For that moment I was very happy and inspired." The program offered Benjy and Chaim a way to follow the path laid out for them by their religious community—including marrying women and starting their own families. Initially, it felt like a huge relief. "For people like me who were rejected for so long," Chaim says, "I just needed that connection with people."
But both soon grew frustrated and quit the program. Chaim came out first, with gusto. "When Chaim does something, boy, does he do it!" Benjy says. "Rainbows here and rainbow glitter there and rainbow yarmulke and rainbow bracelets and rainbow necklace. But he at least seemed happy."
Watching Chaim become an activist gave Benjy courage, he remembers. "If it weren’t for people like Chaim, I might be still in the closet."
Benjy and Chaim realized that being free of JONAH wasn't enough. They filed a lawsuit in 2012, along with two other clients. Together they claimed that the program defrauded them and their parents. They won, and JONAH was forced to shut down in 2015. "I would not have survived this lawsuit without this schmuck right here," Chaim says of Benjy, who has become a very close friend. "I tell people that the only good thing I ever got out of JONAH was this guy."
Read more about Chaim, Benjy and their lawsuit against JONAH at Newsweek by reporter Zoë Schlanger.
Watch Newsweek's video about Benjy and Chaim's story.