Eating Disorders in the Frum Community: Recognizing the Problem, Prevalence, and Potential for Healing

A very serious issue facing Jewish communities today is the prevalence of eating disorders among our young women. Interestingly enough, Jewish women make up a disproportionately larger share of eating disorders in the general population. And that's with the illness even under reported in our community! So why are eating disorders so common among young Orthodox women? And why are they under reported?

Erasing the Stigma and Encouraging Education

We suppose that stigma and lack of education are some reasons for underreporting. When someone in our community (chas vshalom) has a life threatening illness, the community reaches out to the family to support them with all forms of chessed and tzedakah. When it comes to an issue in a family like eating disorders, people approach the issue from a stigmatized position, and like other mental health issues in our community, families are afraid of the ramifications of being open about the fact that their family member is suffering, and are concerned about how it will affect what people will think about the parents and other siblings when it comes to issues such as shidduchim. The problem is, when a mental health issue like eating disorders is stigmatized, typically people keep the topic quiet, and so we end up with individuals and families suffering alone in silence, as opposed to being embraced with love and support by their friends and neighbors.

Because the issue is kept quiet, entire communities are rendered uneducated on the very serious, pikuach nefeseh issue of eating disorders. If the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia or overeating, go unrecognized by someone's family, teachers and friends, tragic consequences may occur. The longer an eating disorder goes unattended, the harder it is to treat! It is of incredible importance that our community begin to educate ourselves on the issues, signs and symptoms, and how to help our loved ones who are suffering, and slowly killing themselves with this terrible illness of both body and soul.

Healing Opportunities for Frum Women

There are many things that are missing from the traditional American treatment program for eating disorders, for a young frum woman. Firstly, in some locations, kosher food is not an option. In others where kosher food is available, the fact that the food is going to be different than what all the other women in treatment are eating in the program, is almost always an additional source of stress. When others are learning to cook healthy meals for themselves, frum girls cannot partake because the facility and the food is not kosher. When they are working with dieticians at a secular facility, the dietician is not always cognizant of the specific needs of a frum woman; from the type of foods we eat at home, to how we prepare meals and to how we keep Kashrut.

In a secular environment therapeutic moments are lost; frum women will not be given advice on how to handle frequent chagim at home with their large families and how to eat at the table with everyone else without restricting, binging or purging. Most importantly, the discussions about "a Higher Power" or "a god-like presence" are vague, unhelpful and not culturally relevant.

How Maayan Halev is unique:

For a frum woman to achieve real long lasting recovery, she needs to have access to her value system from her culture and community. That means she needs to have healthy kosher food, and to learn to prepare it for herself in an environment where the fact that it isn't kosher is not an added barrier to her success in creating healthy eating habits. Hashem and Torah teachings and values need to be integrated into her treatment alongside her medical and therapeutic treatment. If she needs to be in a residential treatment facility, she should be in an environment that focuses on Torah values, and has all the amenities and environment of a frum life.

Maayan Halev is an eating disorder treatment program specifically designed to cater to the needs of English speaking frum women suffering from eating disorders. It is a residential treatment program located in Tzfat, in Eretz Yisrael. Unlike most residential programs which are located in a cold hospital setting, Maayan Halev is located in a home setting, and the women live together under medical and clinical supervision in a Bayit. We have Chassideshe hashgacha, and our dieticians are frum and understand the needs of our religious population. We provide the very best clinical care; individual therapy, group therapy, nutrition support, expressive therapy, and psychiatric supervision. We also have shiurim on Torah topics, one-on-one learning, and we integrate Torah and tefilah into the recovery process. By relinquishing control of our lives to Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, and acknowledging that He is in control of everything, we can achieve true long lasting recovery.