Opening a dialogue on eating disorders

Opening a dialogue on eating disorders

In a society that puts a premium on being skinny, it’s no wonder that the number of people with eating disorders has escalated sharply. Still — trendy clothes aside — the issue is more than one of just appearance.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski, founder/medical director emeritus of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center, a nonprofit drug and alcohol treatment system in western Pennsylvania, said in an interview with The Jewish Standard last year that "within every problem, there is a component of self-esteem that needs to be corrected."

Twerkski, who served for ‘0 years as clinical director of the department of psychiatry at St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh and has written more than 40 books, including "The Thin Within You," said he estimates that some ‘0 percent of young Jewish girls have, or will develop, an eating disorder.

He also pointed out a problem that appears to be unique to segments of the Orthodox Jewish community — in particular, those who rely on a shadchan, or third party, to arrange marriages for their children. Noting that some young men specify the dress size of a prospective spouse — and that this is more likely to be a size ‘ than a size 1′ — he said that some suitors also want to know the dress size of the girls’ mothers, to get an idea of how the girls will look when they’re older.

"This is causing an increasing number of cases [of anorexia] among middle-aged women as well," he said, adding that both the affected girls, and their parents, may be "in denial."

Zeva Citronenbaum, a social worker in Rockland County, N.Y., interviewed at the same time, pointed out that the topic of mental health is still both "taboo and underfunded" in the community at large, and even more so in the Orthodox community.

In an effort to deal with this problem, the Young Leadership Cabinet of the Orthodox Union is calling upon the Orthodox community to provide financial support for the production of a film "Dying to be Thin," which seeks to "raise awareness of the destructive and life-threatening impact of eating disorders on the community." YLC is sponsoring an event in Bergenfield on Sunday, April 15, at the home of members Ari and Dassie Fuchs to seek this support. Similar events have already taken place in Long Island and Queens.

The Bergenfield event will feature specialists in the field of eating disorders as well as the survivor of an eating disorder who will speak about her experience. According to Ilana Prager, YLC director, the group has already raised a substantial part of the funds needed to make the film. She said the YLC hopes to complete fund-raising for the project by this summer and to begin filming in the fall.

Prager suggested that the increased emphasis in the Orthodox community on modesty is sending a mixed message to women. "On one hand, having to cover up your body lets you camouflage your body and takes the emphasis off objectifying women," she said. On the other hand, "it makes women more aware of their shape."

She also noted that members of the Orthodox community have traditionally "valued privacy," hesitating to acknowledge any kind of disorder. When seeking a match, girls "don’t want to be seen as having any kind of flaw or illness," or even to have a relative with any kind of condition, said Prager.

"In a tight-knit community, some may feel reluctant to discuss private family and health matters," she said. "’Dying to be Thin’ seeks … to open a discussion about eating disorders. We want to raise awareness, to make it more comfortable to talk about."

The film will be especially helpful to the observant community, said Ari Prager, vice president of OU’s New Jersey region, noting that "this educational documentary is necessary because there are no films available that address eating disorders in a context that is appropriate for a Torah-observant audience."

"Most films include provocative body images and images that are at odds with the Jewish laws of modesty," he added. "Jewish school administrators are not comfortable showing these films because of these images. However, we are hearing again and again from Jewish schools that eating disorders remain a problem in the student population."

Prager said that other films may inadvertently teach youngsters "how to" have an eating disorder. She said she heard a survivor of bulimia explain that she learned about the condition from an educational documentary. She noted that the OU has been working with the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York to arrange distribution of the movie to Jewish high schools and seminaries.

The film was conceived and produced by Elisheva Diamond, chair of the Subcommittee on Social and Community Services of the YLC, and is directed by Rick Magder, OU director of media and broadcasting.

For more information about the Bergenfield event, call Ilana Prager at (‘1’) 613-8134 or e-mail


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