The prevalence of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia is on the rise, and they are not discriminating against any race, ethnicity, social class, or religion, including members of the Jewish community. The culture of the Jewish people heavily revolves around gatherings with family, friends, and large quantities of food. Each Jewish holiday is associated with a meal consisting of multiple courses. For example, the Jewish people observe Shabbat (the Holy Sabbath), which commences every Friday night at sundown, traditionally including a festive dinner. In general, people who are sharing their celebrations will provide food to the community; people who are mourning will receive food from the community; friends and families who gather feed each other. The bottom line is: the Jewish community connects through food.
Orthodox Jews typically follow Jewish law strictly, abiding the traditions of the women cooking all of the food for their families on a daily basis, as well as for the festive meals. Orthodox Jewish couples are often set up by a matchmaker. The meetings of the man and woman are brief; it is within several encounters that they decide whether they will spend the rest of their lives together. The pressure on the woman to be presentable and marriage material in a limited timeframe is stressful, and reiterates the importance of appearance.
The food-related traditions within the Jewish culture combined with the pressures to be thin in today’s society strongly influence the development of eating disorders.
The Jewish Community Steps In
When members of the Jewish community became aware of the increasing numbers of eating disorders, they decided to create groups in an attempt to teach young girls about what it means to be a girl. One of these groups is called “Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing.” The goal of the program, which meets several times a month, is to provide teachings and activities for girls as they grow up in their teenage years. It is an attempt to keep the girls involved in the Jewish community and to focus on their self-concept, which tends to decrease significantly as they enter adolescence.
Another project that was fashioned by the Union for Reform Judaism was the creation of the Litapayach Tikvah: To Nourish Hope. This is a brochure which has been passed along through Jewish communities to educate about the prevalence of eating disorders. There have also been conferences focusing on eating disorders in the Jewish community, where professionals are educated on the Jewish culture, influences on eating disorders, and how to proceed in treatment.
Miriam is a Mental Health Counselor at Walden Behavioral Care’s Adult Partial and Intensive Outpatient Programs in Waltham, MA. Miriam has been with Walden for two years. She studied and became interested in the topic of eating disorders in the Jewish community during college.