Healthy Body, Healthy Soul

Special guest post by Shira Sheps, Director of Outreach, Maayan Halev

In today’s world, there is tremendous pressure placed on the young women in our community. She must exhibit total tzniut, have impeccable character, be a perfect student, helpful daughter, responsible sister, get a good shidduch, be beautiful, thin, get married young, have many children, get an education, be successful in work and support their families, be a supportive wife, and a baalat chesed in the community. There are so many roles to fill, and limited physical, spiritual, and emotional energy to fill them all to the high standards expected by the community. Just one of these roles alone can be pressure enough to cause a young woman to have her distress manifest itself into an eating disorder to deal with her stress, her need to be perfect, or her need to maintain control.

It is also important to note, that the young women in our community are not immune to the influences of the greater world culture, where impossible body images are idealized. This issue of unattainable and unrealistic body images has infiltrated our world and the pressure to be thin in order to fit a "community standard of beauty" is unfair and dangerous. The general idealizing of the thin physique can be extreme; we look for new mothers to be back to their normal body at their son's bris, we expect young kallahs to lose weight for their weddings, and the dress size of a young woman will determine the type of shidduchim she is suggested.

Eating disorders in the Orthodox community have affected a devastating number of our young women. We recognized this issue, and are proud to announce the opening of Maayan Halev, a residential eating disorder treatment program specifically designed for English speaking Orthodox women from around the world, located in Tzfat, Israel.

Unlike most residential programs which are located in a cold Spartan hospital setting, Maayan Halev is located in a home setting, and the women live together under medical and clinical supervision in a Bayit. We have room for five to ten women over the age of 18. Maayan Halev has Chassideshe hashgacha, and our dieticians keep strict kashrut themselves and so they understand the needs of our unique demographic. We provide the very best clinical care; this includes individual therapy, group therapy, nutrition support, expressive therapy, and psychiatric supervision. We integrate Torah and tefilah into the recovery process, because we believe that by relinquishing control of our lives to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, and acknowledging that He is in control of everything, we can achieve true long lasting recovery.

For Orthodox women, there are many things that are missing from the traditional American treatment programs for eating disorders. Firstly, in many locations kosher food is not an option. In others where kosher food is available, the fact that the food is going differ from what all the other women in treatment are eating in the program is almost always an additional source of stress. (Very often it is airline-like food.) When others are learning to cook healthy meals for themselves, religious women cannot partake because the facility and the food is not kosher. When they are working with dieticians at a secular facility, the dietician is not always cognizant of the specific needs of an Orthodox woman from the type of food we eat culturally, how we prepare things, and kashrut.

In a secular environment, many therapeutic moments are lost; Orthodox participants will not be given advice on how to handle frequent chagim at home with their large families and how to eat at the table with everyone else without restricting, bingeing, or purging. Most importantly, the discussions about "a Higher Power" or "a godlike presence" are vague and unhelpful and not culturally relevant.

We believe that for an Orthodox woman to achieve real long-lasting recovery, she needs to have access to her value system from within her culture and community. This means she needs to have healthy kosher food and learn to prepare it for herself in an environment where the fact that it isn't kosher is not an added barrier to her success in creating healthy eating habits. Strengthening a relationship with Hashem and Torah values needs to be integrated into her program alongside her medical and therapeutic treatment. If she needs to be in a residential treatment facility, she should be in an environment that caters to Torah values, and has all the amenities and environment of a frum life along with the top clinical and medical care.

The issue of eating disorders in the Orthodox community is very prevalent, but is under-reported. We suppose that stigma and lack of education are some reasons for this. When someone in our community (chas v’shalom) has a life threatening illness, the community reaches out to the family to support them with all forms of chessed and tzedakah. When it comes to an issue in a family like eating disorders, people approach the issue from a stigmatized position, and, like other mental health issues in our community, families are afraid of the ramifications of being open about the fact that their family member is suffering, and are concerned about how it will affect what people will think about the parents and other siblings when it comes to issues such as shidduchim. The problem is, when a mental health issue like eating disorders is stigmatized, typically people keep the topic quiet, and so we end up with individuals and families suffering alone in silence, as opposed to being embraced with love and support by their friends and neighbors.

Since this issue is kept quiet, entire communities are rendered uneducated on the very serious, pikuach nefeseh issue of eating disorders. If the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia, or overeating go unrecognized by someone's family, teachers, and friends, tragic consequences may occur. The longer an eating disorder goes unattended, the harder it is to treat! It is of incredible importance that our community begin to educate ourselves on the issues, signs, and symptoms, and how to help our loved ones who are suffering and slowly killing themselves with this terrible illness of both body and soul.

For more information about Maayan Halev, please visit their website at www.MaayanHalev.com, and contact Shira Sheps, Director of Outreach at MaayanHalev@gmail.com or 732 406 3844.