Pound For Pound, A Tough Problem
05/14/2009 - 20:00
Staff Writer

Three and a half years ago, Elisheva Diamond, a clinical psychology graduate student at Long Island University and clinical research coordinator at Mount Sinai, realized that those around her in the Orthodox community couldn’t see the terror right in front of them, the disease that was eating their children alive.

“People in the Five Towns [where I live] — smart, educated and thoughtful parents — had no idea about eating disorders, how to recognize them or what to do,” she said. “People are looking to deny rather than address the issue.”

So she set out on an awareness campaign, and later made a documentary, figuring that film was the most effective medium to get the message out that eating disorders are not just a problem for others, but for the Orthodox community as well.

In February, the Orthodox Union released the documentary “Hungry to be Heard,” a project of the OU’s Young Leadership Cabinet. It is a collaboration between Diamond, Sarah Weinberger-Litman, an experimental health psychologist and researcher with a focus on eating disorders at the HealthCare Chaplaincy, and Leta Lenik of Better World Productions, an Orthodox filmmaker who has also directed a documentary on agunot. The film features testimonials from Orthodox teens and adults, not all of them female, who are recovering from or have already recovered from eating disorders. Doctors, psychologists and rabbis also speak.

Until now, available resources did not address the specific needs of the Orthodox community. “We made this film precisely because of [the eating disorder education films] shown in high school,” Weinberger-Litman said. “Many [students] walk away with tips [for being an anorexic], and with the pictures of naked, emaciated women [in their heads].”

These filmmakers wanted to present images and issues their Orthodox target audience can relate to. “If they look like you, come from your community, it’s hard to deny that it’s happening,” Diamond added. “We did this because we love our community and we want to protect them.”

“As a psychologist, eating disorders are fascinating,” Diamond continued. “They are misunderstood by the public. People think, why don’t you just eat? Why would you make yourself throw up? It’s very public/private. The psychic pain needs some physical proof to show how much pain you’re in. It’s a very public external message and an internal control and impulsivity.” The most common disorders are anorexia, bulimia and compulsive overeating.

The film title, Diamond’s idea, “emerged from the footage,” Weinberger-Litman said. “People needed their voices heard.”

The film begins with some staggering statistics. Ten million people in the U.S. suffer from eating disorders, and of those only 50 percent will fully recover, another 10 to 20 percent will never recover, or will die as a result of their illnesses.

One woman, her face in shadows, talks about the pressure she felt that contributed to her illness. “I felt it was more important to make my parents proud or have the façade of a successful, smart, good Jewish girl than to take care of myself,” she said.

A standout speaker in the documentary is Aliza Stareshefsky, the director of student programming at Bruriah High School in Elizabeth, N.J., and a survivor of eating disorders, who now speaks about her ordeal throughout the country.

Recounting her internal logic while in high school, she recalled, “I was hungry but I felt like if I felt that pain that meant I was getting empty and getting empty meant I was going to lose weight and losing weight meant I was going to be pretty… I would look in the mirror and I would see an ugly, horrible monster.”

Subjects in the film, some found through posting on Facebook, talk about the issues that drove them to seek control in a self-destructive way, everything from abuse to depression to a general desire to fit in. Moshe, the only young man depicted, talks about suffering from bulimia, purging five to 10 times a day because “If I could get more people to like me, I could eventually like myself.” Moshe only came to realize what he was doing after hearing Stareshefsky speak. It was then that he sought help, Diamond told The Jewish Week.

The film also highlights the cultural component to eating disorders in the Orthodox community: holidays centered on food and a shidduch process with invasive questions that seem more focused on outward appearance than compatibility.

“You just need to be a teenage girl in high school and grow up in a culture that is obsessed with weight and image and food to be concerned about these issues,” Weinberger-Litman said.

Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, a psychiatrist, discusses how the ideal concept of female beauty professed by King Solomon, “a woman who has reverence for HaShem … has come under attack.” The new ideal of beauty is very young and extremely thin. “In the old country 100 years ago, a slim woman with an ideal figure would never have gotten a shidduch because she was assumed to be sick.”

Judith Rabinor, a clinical psychologist and author of “A Starving Madness: Tales of Hunger, Hope and Healing in Psychotherapy,” speaks in the film about the shidduchim process and speaks to patients in Manhattan and Long Island about these issues.

Parents encourage dieting for the shidduch process, Rabinor said in the film. When screening families, questions include the mother’s weight, trying to determine what a woman will look like years in the future.

“People need to be woken up to the fact that thinking this way is very damaging,” Rabinor said during an interview with The Jewish Week. “Through dieting, our culture makes us feel like at every age and every weight, my life would be better if I lost five pounds.”

On Feb. 24, Tova Gardin, a 20-year-old senior at Stern College, showed the documentary to a group of nearly 200 as part of the “Active Minds” campus group, a student-run mental health awareness, education and advocacy organization. Stareshefsky spoke after the screening.

“This documentary gives this issue a face in our community,” Gardin said. “Eating disorders are prevalent within our community, not just the rest of the world. The stigma leads to ignorance, and individuals not knowing how to help themselves or their friends. People were amazed by the video, taken aback by it. They saw some students they had sat with in class, and never knew [they had this problem]. It gave the students the material to start a discussion.”

The film’s target audience is not only high-risk children and adults, but the whole community. After all, it can help prevent eating disorders.

“Parents, community leaders and educators are the first line of defense,” Weinberger-Litman said. “We show it to them because kids won’t get themselves help.”

How To Get Help

Recovery resources are available for Orthodox people struggling with eating disorders. The Renfrew Center, a Philadelphia-based eating disorder treatment center with additional outposts in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, recently announced the formation of a customized track for observant Jewish women. It follows the laws of kashrut, Shabbat and holiday observance, prayer, religious study, home life and family life traditions. A peer support group for Orthodox women with eating disorders, with supervision by Mount Sinai hospital, has also been formed on the Upper West Side and meets at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday nights.

In addition, a National Institute of Health-sponsored study is currently being conducted at six locations nationwide, including New York-Presbyterian/Westchester’s Weill Cornell Medical College. It compares the effects of behavioral family therapy, known as the Maudsley Approach, which has parents supervising eating habits of anorexic children and feeding them high-calorie foods, to the more established family systems therapy, a method consisting of regular therapy sessions. The study is still recruiting students age 12 to 18 and their families in the New York area. For more information, eligible participants can e-mail the study coordinator, Samantha Berthod, at sab2024@med.cornell.edu.

A screening of the documentary for professionals will take place during a seminar on eating disorders in the Jewish community, cosponsored by the OU and the Renfrew Center, at Ramaz Middle School, 114 E. 85th St., on June 7. The seminar, which includes speakers and workshops, runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information on the seminar, call Frank Buchweitz at (212) 613-8188.

 A screening for the wider Jewish community will take place at the JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave. at 76th Street, on June 17, beginning at 7 p.m. For more information on this screening, call (646) 505-5708.

“Hungry to be Heard” is also available free of charge to any Jewish community, and speakers can be arranged. To obtain a copy, call Frank Buchweitz at (212) 613-8188.