Treating Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community

Melissa Spann, PhD, CEDS Executive Director

Food and body image issues are universal – not unique to any one cultural group. In fact, the National Eating Disorder Association indicates that eating disorders show no boundaries across demographics. Considering the cross-cultural scope of eating disorders, it is important to highlight the cultural sensitivities of particular groups that may have impact the development of an eating disorder. The onset of an eating disorder is often multi-faceted and includes biological, psychological, social and spiritual factors affecting an individual. Within the context of the Jewish community, it is important to highlight specific sensitivities that may contribute to the onset and development of an eating disorder.

Author Wendy Mogel refers to Judaism as a “table-centered religion.” There is a long tradition of intense focus on meal preparation, particularly associated with Shabbat, Passover, and Sukkot, during which holidays there is an additional emphasis on sitting for hours over meals.  These observances may present a significant challenge to those who may be struggling with their relationship to food. The abundance of food and easy accessibility may contribute to potential binge eating. A client once described weekly Shabbat with her family as a never-ending Thanksgiving celebration, week after week, during which she constantly experienced a Thanksgiving-day fullness and felt unable to honor her body’s internal hunger/fullness cues. Additionally, the laws of kashrut could have the potential to exacerbate issues around dietary restriction. Kosher laws set forth strict standards over the consumption of food, like what to eat and when. Such laws, though well-intended, may impact dietary restriction, particularly given the religious context. We eat, we pray and we live around food. Breaking bread with others can be a daunting task for someone who is caught in an internal dialogue of should I or shouldn’t I, can I or can’t I, eat. Those around a table may have no awareness that the family member, friend, or loved one next to them has been avoiding eating until that dinner moment or is counting calories. This social isolation that can occur within the context of community causes additional anxiety and withdrawn presence. We have the opportunity provide additional support to those who are suffering and use holidays and table-centered events as a time for joy and celebration.

We must also take note of the struggle experienced during this holiday season by those individuals who have sought treatment and who cannot observe the holidays according to their tradition due to treatment needs. I recall working with a client who could not fast on Yom Kippur due to being in residential treatment. This created tension within her family and deep sadness within herself. She felt less than a Jew on that holiest of days. We worked together to create prayers of teshuvah, of letting go and found ways to pray outside of the fast. With wonderful resources including meditations and adopted prayers for those who cannot fast, there are many opportunities to observe. With another client receiving treatment during the high holidays, we created rituals of tashlich to cast off the sins of not honoring her body and set goals for the New Year around health and recovery.

The range of eating disorders is as diverse as sects of Judaism itself. Many times, the manifestation of an eating disorder is singular to that person, with its own rituals and practices, just as Jews practice in many different ways. Despite the differences within the Jewish community, the fundamental values that serve as the foundation of the faith provide a framework for understanding ways to respect and honor our bodies. Consider, for example pikuach nefesh, the belief that the preservation of human life takes precedence over all other commandments, is a universal tenet across all transitions of Judaism. Whether seeking treatment or meeting other needs, the preservation of life paramount. Another Jewish value that lends to healing and recovery is the concept of chesed. Chesed, or acts of loving kindness, if often directed towards others. Chesed, as a broad Jewish value, can be extended not only towards others but as an internal goal as well. Often women struggling with eating disorders provide and care for others in a way they would not care for themselves. Through chesed, we can encourage ourselves to be empowered through a contract with God to care for ourselves as we would care for others.

Another challenge within the secular community has emerged — the ideal of super-woman. This concept is tied to the desire of women to excel in many different roles at the same time. The “do it all and have it all” may be a challenge for women and girls in experiencing additional stressors to over perform in all aspects of their daily lives. Within Judaism, these added pressures coupled with mixed messages around what a Jewish woman “should” look like may impact the onset of disordered eating. When meeting new people, I often receive the comment “oh, you look so familiar!” My response internally is “yes, I look like an ashkenazic Jew”. Despite others stating that I remind them of someone they know, in opening magazines and watching television, I am not often met with women who look like me. Our sociocultural pressures of looking a certain way and the thin ideal (concept of an ideally slim female body) are exacerbated by the super-woman ideal, which can lead to a lot of pressures to look and act a certain way. The thin ideal is a stark contrast to the idea of a zaftig. The concept of zaftig (which many books/articles have been written about) is a Yiddish word often to describe a full-figured woman. Judaism does teach that we are all created in God’s image – b’tzelem Elohim. This Jewish value can help us identify the holiness within each of us and with one another. Through eating disorder therapy, we can learn to develop a scared relationship with our bodies.

Within Monte Nido & Affiliates, we are fortunate to be able to offer treatment facilities that can provide kosher food for observant clients as well as allow for religious observances for the Sabbath and other holidays. At our Monte Nido, Oliver-Pyatt Centers and Clementine programs, we believe for all clients that the healing of body, mind and soul are intrinsically intertwined. Through treatment rooted in a mindfulness-based approach and evidence-based treatment, we have the unique opportunity to provide the most effective and meaningful care. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please reach out:

Knowing your loved one is struggling with the aftermath of a traumatic experience can be a devastating process and we are here to help ease your pain. If you are ready to take a step toward healing, please visit our admissions page here.

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