When people hear that I’m starting a non-profit targeting the Jewish community (with regard to eating disorders) they often ask – is having such an organization really that important?
There are countless websites and books that provide phenomenal eating disorder information. Additionally there are many treatment centers that provide Kosher food or an Orthodox track, though they do not specifically cater to the Jewish community overall. So why the need for an organization that specifically targets the Jewish community and eating disorder support?
When I first began my journey toward recovery I was a passenger on the ride; my parents asked the important questions of the treatment center and doctors, ensuring that I would be able to practice Judaism and feel welcomed in the environment. When I embarked on my 3 hour drive to the inpatient facility at which I would reside for a month I had a special lamp for Shabbat, Besamim for Havdalah, my Siddur, and lots of ambivalence. At this time I was not connected to the world of the living, let alone to religion. I had never abandoned the customs or felt angry at God, rather I simply did not think about it. I was too focused on worshipping my eating disorder, on counting and tracking. But I was reminded of my religion while in treatment; I was encouraged to do so by my therapist, my family, and by a rabbi who worked at the treatment center as a social worker.
People often ask whether or not I feel an individual should seek out a religious therapist. This question is client-specific but I often feel that in the beginning of the recovery process this can be helpful; the act of not having to explain what meals and practices mean can often harbor a connection between the therapist and client. In some cases, the client needs a therapist who is not part of the community, because aspects of the community may exacerbate the eating disorder; as I said, it is truly subjective to the individual.
However I do strongly believe in a treatment model that caters specifically to the Jewish community. While I am not at this point planning to create a treatment center, there is one worth mention, whose doors will be opening in May in Tzfat. Maayan Halev is a treatment center for eating disorders specifically for English speaking,Orthodox young women. The center will house 10 clients and provide Kosher meals, therapy, group therapy, and include Torah learning and religious themes with regard to recovery. Shira Lankin Sheps, the marketing director of Maayan Halev states:
“Healthy long lasting recovery is made more difficult in typical residential treatment programs due to “being different.” Orthodox women (if they have access to kosher food), are going to be eating different food than what every other woman in the program is eating which will add additional barriers to learning to eat healthily again…in order for an Orthodox woman to really establish long lasting recovery, she needs to have access to her value system and the protective measures that the Torah already puts into our understanding of health and eating healthily, and how strengthening a relationship with Hashem, can be redemptive and empowering. This is why opening Maayan Halev is so important; because it is being designed specifically for the needs of English speaking Orthodox women, in a way that will enable them to receive the highest clinical care available along with Torah atmosphere and understanding that is imperative to their recovery. “
I strongly believe that involving religion in one’s recovery can be an uplifting and meaningful component that serves as support and guidance. Some individuals recover without a religious component. However, those who come from a religious community and who wish to continue religious practices can be made to feel more comfortable and supported by seeking out therapists who can relate to the Jewish community. Additionally, treatment centers such as Maayan Halev provide a familiar environment, and as Shira mentioned, allow the individual to feel completely at ease.
A truly wonderful therapist and center will break the barriers of religion and culture. At the same time, I remember how relieved I felt when I did not need to explain Shabbat or Kashrut to my Orthodox therapist. The cultural factors that can play a role in disrupting recovery are avoided when treatment is done in an environment of understanding.
It is crucial that we recognize the cultural aspect of recovery from an eating disorder. We must work to understand the truth about eating disorders and foster a sense of awareness within the community. Those who are suffering often feel nervous or spiteful to involve religion and Judaism because of the sense of shame they feel; we can amend this by promoting support and showing these individuals that we are doing our best to understand.