By Maayan Jaffe
Temimah Zucker, 24, is a modest young woman with an equally modest frame. But her smile, vitality, and drive fill a room. Her message and mission-that eating disorders are an expanding challenge in the Jewish community and need to be tackled head on-is not always a popular one, but it is a calling for which she has an intense passion. It is also a fight she knows could save lives.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, according to the Journal of American Psychiatry. A report by the Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders states that as many as 20 percent of people suffering from anorexia will prematurely die from complications related to their eating disorder.
Zucker was almost part of that statistic. She developed anorexia at 18 when she left her Teaneck, N.J., home to attend college in the New York City borough of Queens. Before starting college, she had experienced several social-emotional traumas, such as her grandmother’s passing, betrayal by one of her best high school friends, and more. The youngest of three children, she had never been away from home and wasn’t sure she was ready to grow up or that she could handle the responsibility.
In a matter of months, Zucker had started restricting her food in what she described as an effort to “take control.” It wasn’t a conscious decision, she says, meaning she didn’t wake up one morning and decide to become anorexic. Rather, she calls it a “natural progression of not feeling hungry, and then this full-blown development of a clinical eating disorder.”
Within months, Zucker’s weight had dropped (she doesn’t give out numbers), and she became irritable and withdrawn. Finally, her parents confronted her and “forced” her to see the doctor.
“The doctor told me that based on my blood work, that I was hours if not a day away from slipping into a coma that I probably would not have woken up from,” Zucker tells JNS.org. “I was a walking shadow.”
Zucker entered treatment and worked through her challenges in a variety of inpatient and outpatient settings, but she says the turning point for her was watching the Orthodox Union-produced documentary film “Hungry to be Heard.”
“I realized I was not alone,” Zucker says.
Today, Zucker hopes to inspire others in a similar way to how the documentary motivated her. She is a walking message board, boldly conveying the point that eating disorders exist in the Jewish community-but if treated, they can be managed and even overcome.
A student at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Zucker now shares her personal story at day schools, synagogues, and community centers, and has started a peer support group for Jewish teens recovering from anorexia. She says she initially went public with her story because she had a dream of inspiring others. Now, she says it is more about “showing people there is hope” and raising awareness. The Jewish community, she says, must unite around this issue and talk about what many consider an entire faith’s preoccupation with-and disordered relation to-food.
“When I meet people in the Jewish community and tell them I work with eating disorders, they say, ‘Me too! I never stop eating!’ There is an understanding that food plays a central role in Judaism. People overeat, emotionally eat, and it can be life-threatening,” says Zucker, explaining there might be challenges specific to Judaism, and especially Orthodoxy, that drive eating disorders.
There is enormous pressure in the Orthodox Jewish community to marry young and immediately start a family, and an understanding for many women that they will be forced to balance a career with being a consummate homemaker and cook. An eating disorder delays all that. Matchmakers often ask questions about women’s waist size; it’s understood that desired dimensions are 23-27 inches.
Further, like many other challenging issues-sexual abuse, divorce, and mental illness, to name a few-people don’t like to talk about eating disorders or admit that they occur in the Jewish community, and so the reality of the problem is covered up. While the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reports as many as 24 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder, there are no definitive studies about eating disorders in the Jewish population. A 1996 study of an Orthodox high school in Brooklyn found 1 in 19 girls had an eating disorder. A 2008 study of Toronto teens found that 25 percent of Jewish girls suffered from the illness.
Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser, author of the 2001 book “Starving to Live,” has been a leading voice for the recognition of eating disorders and their proper treatment in the Torah-observant community for more than 15 years. In the book, he describes situations in which parents have chosen against treating their children out of humiliation. Understanding the severity of the disease, such actions could be tantamount to murder, he believes.
Goldwasser notes that eating disorders are rarely about being thin, but as NEDA explains, they are “complex conditions that arise from a combination of long-standing behavioral, biological, emotional, psychological, interpersonal, and social factors.” Goldwasser advocates for a 12-step program that he has modified from a Jewish lens to help people in their recovery. He says spirituality is an essential component of recovery.
“Everyone needs … a connection with a higher level, with God, to feel that the world itself is run by Divine providence and there is substance to my life, even if I don’t feel like a worthy person right now,” Goldwasser tells JNS.org.
Indeed, there might be some hope in the quest to treat eating disorders. On Jan. 1 in Israel, a law went into effect that aims to prevent fashion models from losing weight to the detriment of their health and the wellbeing of others inclined to follow in their footsteps. The law stipulates that fashion/commercial models should have a body-mass index of at least 18.5 and that computer-generated changes to make models appear thinner need to be noted along with the images.
Additionally, several treatment centers have started to offer kosher food at their clinics over the last decade, and a clinic catered to young women from the U.S. opened in Jerusalem in 2010.
Zucker recently raised more than $6,000 to fund her “Tikvah v’Chizuk” (Hope and Strength) non-profit organization, which will center on a website (now under construction) that will provide resources, articles, and forums to support people with eating disorders.
Greta Gleissner-a New York-based eating disorder therapist and co-founder of Clinical Recovery Specialists, an eating disorder concierge service that provides in-home eating disorder recovery support nationwide-has gotten to know Zucker through the office space they share in Manhattan. Zucker works as a counselor at Eating Disorder Treatment of New York – Monte Nido Treatment Center. Gleissner praises Zucker for proactively talking about her recovery. Gleissner, herself a recovered bulimic, says she finds that, “It is helpful for clients to know that you have walked in their shoes.”
Gleissner tells JNS.org that Zucker has “drive” and is “passionate about helping others and spreading the message of recovery.”
“There is hope,” says Zucker. “I think that is the most important thing.”