The Jewish Forward is a national weekly, so when it picks its top 50 Jews, it has a lot of Jews from whom to choose.
In 2014, two of those top 50 are from our area – in fact, both are from Teaneck. Loretta Weinberg, the Democrat who is the majority leader of the New Jersey State Senate and a prominent critic of Governor Chris Christie, is no stranger to our pages; she was profiled with a cover story in our April 25 issue this year.
The other is Temimah Zucker, the young activist whose own struggle with anorexia has led her to a career fighting eating disorders.
“I was diagnosed with anorexia in the fall of 2008,” Ms. Zucker said. It was her first semester of college – she matriculated at Queens College, and moved from her parents’ home to live there. Most of her friends were away on their gap years, but she had decided to go straight from her high school, the now-closed Bat Torah Academy in Suffern, N.Y., to college.
|Temimah Zucker struggled with anorexia; she now works to free others from its grip.|
The transition was hard. “Before I started college, I had been dealing with some pretty heavy social betrayals,” she said. “The type of stuff you might read about in young adult novels. And then my grandmother had passed away a few years before, and it stuck with me. And I’d always been a sensitive person.”
All those stresses, which are so common in young people’s lives but often make them feel as if they are all alone in the world and the only person ever to confront them, pushed her to anorexia.
It happened at once quickly and slowly, Ms. Zucker said. In two months, she had been taken over by the disorder, but it took her far longer to realize that anything was wrong, let alone exactly what that problem was. “I didn’t wake up and say that I was anorexic, but I just didn’t want to eat,” she said.
Because she lived in Queens during the week but came home for Shabbat, her parents could notice the kinds of small changes to which daily exposure could blind even the most devoted mothers and fathers. “They saw a change not only in my appearance but also in my mood,” Ms. Zucker said. She began to withdraw from them and from her friends – most of them were in Israel, so all she had to do was not respond to calls or emails – “and when my parents asked me about it, I would just say ‘I’m fine. Everything is fine.’
“It was a very big combination of denial and wanting to be fine.”
Ms. Zucker in fact was not fine; she was suffering from both anorexia and its frequent companion, depression. (“There often is comorbidity with eating disorders and either depression or anxiety,” she said.)
She was lucky. Her parents, Rabbi Saul and Cindy Zucker, stepped in. First, they accompanied their daughter to the therapist she had been seeing since her grandmother died. The therapist told the Zuckers that Temimah would be okay. “Just let it run its course,” she told them. “My father got up. He was like ‘All right. We’re going to go. Thanks for your time.'”
Eventually Ms. Zucker was diagnosed. In just two months, she already had done some damage to her body. She moved back home, and her parents oversaw her meals. She moved back and forth from day to inpatient treatments.
She was 18 – no longer a minor, although barely – “and a strong part of this whole thing was being afraid of growing up,” she said. “And there I was, back home, being fed.
“I was like the shadow of a person. I stopped watching TV. I stopped reading. I stopped talking on the phone. I even stopped laughing. I was very stubborn, but I also was very passive.”
During that dark time, her father, who is now the principal of a high school, Magen David Yeshivah in Brooklyn, worked in the Orthodox Union’s education department. He brought home a movie, “Hungry To Be Heard,” about eating disorders in the Jewish community. “That was the first time that I acknowledged that I had a problem,” she said. “I realized that I wasn’t the only one in the Jewish community who had this problem, even though nobody talked about it.
“That’s when I said that I need help.”
Although it is easy for people with eating disorders – not only anorexia, but also bulimia and binge eating disorder – to find a community online, Ms. Zucker did not. That community can be terribly destructive, spurring readers on to ever greater feats of self-denial and self-harm as they compete with other, equally unhealthy anorexics or bulimics to win plaudits for being the most extreme.
Instead, “I was more focused on my own stuff,” she said. “I would overexercise secretly, and look at recipes online all day” – classic behaviors – “but I figured them all out myself.”
Temimah’s parents – Cindy Zucker also is an educator; she is the middle-school girls’ mashgicha ruchanit at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge – took care of her throughout this time. It was not easy. “I was so angry at them all the time,” Temimah said. “Because they were feeding me.”
Once she decided that she would prefer to emerge from anorexia, it took Ms. Zucker about three and a half years to meet that goal. “A huge misconception is that once you go into treatment, you come out cured,” she said. “That is far from the truth.” But a strong support system, loving and patient family and friends, and a desire to heal propelled her. The last jolt she needed was provided by her parents’ promise to send her on a 10-day trip to Israel if she could be counted on to eat properly.
It worked. “My friends there said that they don’t care how much you weigh or what you look like,” she said. “They said that they just cared if I was happy. I had heard it before, but this time I believed it.” The trip had given her independence, a sure sign that she was growing up.
Ms. Zucker began to speak in schools in 2011, three years after her eating disorder first took root. When her therapist first asked her to consider public speaking, “I was like ‘No, that’s too much. I will feel exposed.’ But she said to think about it.”
Ms. Zucker did speak, and “a girl emailed to me, and said ‘After hearing your story, and seeing how hard you are working, I finally am able to admit that I have a problem. I will go get help.’
“And that helped me realize that I didn’t want to be on the wrong side of it any more. I wanted to live my life.”
Ms. Zucker graduated from college and has now finished a master’s degree in social work at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School. She has worked with people suffering from eating disorders in both the secular and Jewish worlds.
Eating disorders are a problem in many communities, but they are particularly strong in the Jewish world, Ms. Zucker said. Part of that is because Jewish culture centers so much around huge, festive, multicourse meals. “When I say to someone in the Jewish community that I work with people with eating disorders, someone will always say ‘I have an eating disorder. I eat too much.'”
That is not particularly funny to her, she said.
There is a stigma about admitting to any kind of mental or mood disorder. “It’s sort of like a taint,” she said. “And it is such a close-knit community that if one person knows something, everybody knows it.”
In 2012, Ms. Zucker created an intimate peer support group for young Jews – both men and women – who are grappling with eating disorders. Although most people assume that the disorder strikes only women, in fact it victimizes men as well, she said, and its stigma can be even worse for men.
That spring, “I decided that I wanted to take my idea of providing support to the Jewish community to the next level,” she said. “With a friend, I created a website that provided very basic resources, and it had a forum so people could post anonymously about what they were going through.
“And then in the fall of 2013, I received a fellowship from PresenTense. They wanted to help me turn it into something even bigger.”
That’s her new website, Tikvah v’Chizuk, still under construction, which provides links to some of her writing in such venues as the Huffington Post and the Times of Israel, as well as offering an enhanced list of resources.
“I am also creating a nonprofit that will help the Jewish community by providing ways for people to connect with other people. They also will be able to submit poetry or artwork.”
She wants to help change the perception of eating disorders in the Jewish community. “No one should have to talk about it if they don’t want to – but they should never feel ashamed of it,” she said.
Having had anorexia and recovering from it has made her another person, she said. “I grew up,” she said. “And it also was a big adjustment. Part of it was body image stuff – and the other part was what was underlying the body image stuff.
“One of the last things I had to let go of was that I could ever be the same person I was before. I will be a different person – but that’s not bad.”
Temimah Zucker’s website is at www.tvcsupport.org.