Eating disorders a problem among Orthodox Jews
But recent efforts are aiming to stop the trend. The Orthodox Union, which has been an advocate for treating drug abuse and other taboos in the Jewish community, recently released a documentary “Hungry to be Heard” about the illness and started two support groups in New York City.
And after writing “Full of Ourselves,” which became a phenomenon in the eating disorder community, Dr. Steiner-Adair worked with the Hadassah Foundation to write “Bishvili, For Me,” a Jewish guide to her previous book for day schools and camps.
Experts say preoccuptions with food are more pronounced in the Jewish community, whether it’s planning an elaborate Shabat dinner and following strict kosher laws. A lot of thought goes into what is eaten and abstained from.
Kosher laws forbid eating meat and dairy at the same meal, and forbid eating pork and shellfish. Separate dishes, silverware, sinks and microwaves may also be used for meat and milk products.
“This rigidity can really be a perfect breeding ground for an eating disorder. If you’re already struggling with an eating disorder and now you have all these foods that you can’t eat, it can be very difficult,” said Jodi Krumholz, a dietitian at The Renfrew Center, a Philadelphia-based eating disorder treatment center with a branch in Coconut Creek.
The center treated nearly 200 Jewish patients this year, up markedly from 2009.
In Jerusalem, Rabbi Shimon Herskowitz said community activists approached him about starting a small eating-disorder facility where Jewish American parents would be comforted knowing their daughters were among staff that followed the same religious rituals. But even those parents have been reluctant.
“They only send the kids when they are totally, totally desperate, when the kid is on the borderline of hospital or residential treatment,” said Herskowitz who opened Beit Chaya V’Sarah in Jerusalem last year.
Leaving treatment and re-entering the tight-knit Orthodox culture also presents hurdles. For many, fasting on Yom Kippur or another holiday could cause them to relapse, but patients worry about judgment from others.
Waller felt guilty one holiday as she loaded her plate at a salad bar shortly after leaving treatment. She felt isolated from the community, unable to join in the ritual fast with the rest of her congregation, until she realized her greater sacrifice would be eating.
“For me it became the opposite. I had to give into all the things that everyone else had been giving up,” Waller said. “That was the lightbulb that reconciled the Jewish dilemma I was facing with needing to be in recovery.”
Steiner-Adair says effective prevention highlights part of the religion that can inoculate girls against dangerous body messages in Western culture.
“When you have a religion that says your body is the temple of your soul and you find ways to make that meaningful at 13, that can be a very powerful way to look quite critically at Calvin Klein anorexic-chic models,” she said.