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Eating disorders are a problem among Orthodox Jews

COCONUT CREEK, Florida–Hilary Waller remembers begging her mother to let her fast on Yom Kippur. At 10 years old she was a bit too young, but embracing the rigid discipline seemed desperately important.

“It felt like I was practicing not eating. It was something that was reassuring and gave me strength and a sense of pride,”said Waller, a 28-year-old teacher at a religious school in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania.

It was the same rush she got years later in college each time she saw the scale tip downward. Waller, who suffered from anorexia, starved herself until she stopped menstruating, lost some of her hair and was exercising several times a day.

Health experts say eating disorders are a serious, underreported disease among Orthodox Jewish women and to a lesser extent others in the Jewish community, as many families are reluctant to acknowledge the illness at all and often seek help only when a girl is on the verge of hospitalization.

Several studies indicate a rise in the problem, and those who treat eating disorders say they are seeing more Jewish patients. A new documentary, books and facilities have cropped up to help.

Waller’s family, which belongs to the Conservative branch of Judaism, fasted only on Yom Kippur, but she began fasting other holidays.”And not for religious reasons,”said Waller, who checked into residential treatment after college, more than a decade after she began struggling with the illness.

As eating disorders have become less taboo in mainstream U.S. culture, they remain widely ignored in Orthodox Jewish communities, as families worry the stigma of mental illness could ruin arranged marriages for the patient and even her siblings. Strict food rituals of fasting and remaining kosher can also exacerbate the problem.

Israel has one of the highest rates of anorexia, bulimia and binge eating in the world, said Dr. Yael Latter of the University of Haifa. No organization tracks the numbers of eating disorders among Jewish women, which experts say is partly because of a cultural reluctance to divulge the illness. Studies in different countries and Latzer’s research, however, indicate a high rate in Israel.

Some patients view eating disorders as a more culturally sanctioned form of rebellion in a religion where smoking and drinking are discouraged.

When Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair arrived in Israel more than a decade ago amid pleas from Jewish activists alarmed by a spike in eating disorders, she recalls patients were so afraid to get help that they sent proxies.

“A nurse would come up to me on the street and say,’Please help me. I’m here on behalf of a 19-year-old girl who’s lost 30 pounds(13 kilograms), but she can’t ask for help because she comes from a very religious family and they think it’s good(for her to be underweight)because it’s better for marriage making,'”said Steiner-Adair, a clinical instructor in Harvard Medical School’s psychiatry department.”I was overwhelmed by the needs and the requests.”

Experts say the Orthodox community is sending mixed messages to young women. Parents, matchmakers and potential mates want svelte brides, but may shun women who divulge an eating disorders because of the stigma of mental illness.

For arranged marriages among the ultra-Orthodox, the first question matchmakers ask is about physical appearance, including weight and the mother’s weight, which feeds the message that thinner brides are more desirable, said Dr. Ira Sacker, who practices in New York and has written several books including”Regaining Your Self.”

In 1996, Sacker studied ultra-Orthodox and Syrian Jewish communities in Brooklyn and found that 1 out of 19 girls was diagnosed with an eating disorder, a rate about 50 percent higher than the general U.S. population.

“It is of prime importance within the Jewish Orthodox community the bride appear to be as flawless as possible,”said Rabbi Saul Zucker of the Orthodox Union, which represents Orthodox synagogues in North America.

A mental illness, such as an eating disorder”would be a terrible, terrible blemish and people will go to unbelievable lengths to hide it,”he said.

Recent efforts are aiming to stop the trend. The Orthodox Union, which has been an advocate for treating drug abuse and other taboos in the Jewish community, recently released a documentary”Hungry to be Heard”about the illness and started two support groups in New York City.

After writing”Full of Ourselves,”which became a phenomenon among those with eating disorders, their advocates and doctors. Dr. Steiner-Adair worked with the Hadassah Foundation to write”Bishvili, For Me,”a Jewish guide to her previous book for day schools and camps.

Experts say preoccupation with food are more pronounced in the Jewish community, whether it is planning an elaborate Shabat dinner or generally following strict kosher laws. A lot of thought goes into what is eaten and abstained from.

Kosher laws forbid eating meat and dairy at the same meal, and forbid eating pork and shellfish. Separate dishes, silverware, sinks and microwaves may also be used for meat and milk products.

“This rigidity can really be a perfect breeding ground for an eating disorder. If you’re already struggling with an eating disorder and now you have all these foods that you can’t eat, it can be very difficult,”said Jodi Krumholz, a dietitian at The Renfrew Center, a Philadelphia-based eating disorder treatment center.

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