Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community

Anorexia and bulimia are amongst the most emotionally and physically devastating disorders affecting young Jewish women.

Print this page Print this page

"I feel fat today" is an all too familiar morning refrain in many households. In Western societies thinness has become synonymous with both beauty and success. The imperative to perfect the female body through dieting, exercise, and plastic surgery has become an obsessive preoccupation for adolescent girls and women in our culture. Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are a dangerous consequence of this culture of thinness. 

In the Jewish Community

Anorexia and bulimia are most prevalent within upwardly mobile demographic groups, and are amongst the most emotionally and physically devastating disorders affecting young Jewish women. The Jewish community has become increasingly aware that eating disorders are a serious health concern and, in some cases, a life threatening condition. 

In a recent review of studies by Dr. Caroline Peyser, the data regarding eating disorder rates amongst American Jews was inconclusive as to whether eating disorders are a more prevalent problem within the Jewish community, in comparison to the general population. However, anecdotal observations reveal that most Jewish women have had a friend or family member who has struggled with some sort of eating disorder.

Data from Israel indicates that body preoccupations are also a pervasive worry among Israeli adolescent girls. For example, in one study of weight concerns among high school girls in Israel, 74 percent of 10th grade girls reported having dieted at some point and 47 percent of the girls reported being on a diet at the time of the study. Yet only 12 percent of the girls were actually overweight.

Jewish Communal Responses

eating disordersOver the last ten years, a wide range of responses to the problem of Jewish women, body image, and eating disorders has emerged across Judaism's denominational spectrum and within Jewish educational settings.

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, through KOLOT Center for Jewish Women and Gender Studies, has established one such initiative. Called Rosh Hodesh: It's a Girl Thing, the goal of this program is to foster a positive and strong Jewish identity, in hopes that this will emotionally fortify girls and counter unhealthy cultural norms, including eating disorders. The program aims to help girls experience their bodies as a source of pleasure, health, wisdom, and creativity, reflecting the current thinking in eating disorder prevention research.

In 1998 KOLOT organized a conference on Food, Body Image, and Judaism, in collaboration with The Renfrew Center of Philadelphia, a treatment center for eating disorders. The conference, one of the first collaborations between a Jewish institution and an eating disorder center, explored the interaction of Jewish tradition, assimilation, and body image problems.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Esther Altmann, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with a specialty in the treatment of eating disorders and adolescence. She is in private practice in Manhattan, NY.