Orthodox and Anorexic
As Orthodox Jews join the battle against eating disorders, one young woman shares her harrowing story
By the time Chaya Faigie Jundef was accepted into an eating-disorder treatment program in 2007, she weighed 52 pounds. Too weak to walk, she was carried in. Her hair and teeth had fallen out, and her pulse was a dangerously low 28, less than half a normal reading. Everything sounded like a shriek or a whisper to her, because the thin membrane of fat around the neurons in her ear had dissolved. Her eyesight faded in and out.
And then her heart stopped.
Jundef, an Orthodox woman whose anorexia had brought her to the brink of death, recovered after her stint in the treatment program—but her harrowing experience was far from over. Her story is not unique: The Orthodox community has begun to grapple openly with eating disorders in recent years. In 2008, the Orthodox Union released a documentary film to be shown in Jewish schools called Hungry To Be Heard, about eating disorders among observant Jews. And treatment programs that cater to Orthodox women have opened.
“Now practically everyone knows someone who suffers from an eating disorder,” said Dovid Goldwasser, one of the most prominent Orthodox rabbis to deal with eating disorders.
Roughly 1 percent of the population—disproportionately girls—suffers from anorexia nervosa, defined by the DSM IV as “the refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age or height.” The mortality rate for anorexia is between 20 and 25 percent; it is the highest rate of any psychiatric disorder. The exact figures in the Jewish community are unclear. A study from 1996 by Ira Sacker, an expert on eating disorders and author of Dying To Be Thin, found that one in 19 Jewish girls in an Orthodox Brooklyn high school suffered from some form of eating disorder, 50 percent higher than the rate in the general population. The study was never published; Sacker said that at that point, “people did not want that thing to be public knowledge.” A 2008 study in the Toronto Jewish community found that 25 percent of Jewish girls suffered from an eating disorder, compared to 18 percent of girls in the general population.
Many clinicians have described factors that may make Jewish girls receptive to eating disorders or disordered eating: perfectionism, stress, and an overly strong focus on the body. There is no conclusive evidence that the percentage of eating disorders inside the Orthodox community is higher than the percentage in the general population, or the Jewish community as a whole. “There’s nothing inherent in Orthodoxy that causes an eating disorder,” said Hilary Brodsky, a licensed social worker who works with several Orthodox patients.
What is clear is that the Orthodox community lagged behind others in recognizing the problem; the increasing number of individuals suffering from the disease caught many off guard. “We are usually somewhat of an insular community, and therefore we’re protected from the outside,” Goldwasser said. “What really sounded the alarm bells is that we mirror the outside community in eating disorders. How did we catch up?”
Despite the progress, a veil of silence still exists around eating disorders in the Orthodox world. Jundef agreed to share her story in hopes that it would end this silence and help other women facing similar problems.
I met Jundef last month at the only Starbucks in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Borough Park, Brooklyn; she looked like every other young woman who wandered in and out of the store. She wore a patterned, ankle-length skirt and a long-sleeved T-shirt despite the humid July heat. A black bow on her short brown hair made her look far younger than her 31 years. Jundef is an outpatient at Renfrew Treatment Center, an eating-disorder clinic that opened a track in 2009 for religious Jewish women. As part of the regulations for Renfrew, a social worker from the organization was with us during our interview; aside from vigorously nodding her head to some of Jundef’s points and leaving us to feed her parking meter, she didn’t say anything.
Jundef was born in 1981, the fourth child in a family of 10, in a Toronto suburb. Her family was yeshivish, which roughly translates as being to the right of Modern Orthodoxy. Her father was a member of the Toronto Kollel, and her mother was a successful, self-taught entrepreneur who sold medical supplies. “I had a very good childhood,” Jundef said while she nursed a plastic bottle of water. “My childhood was very busy; I was not a quiet kid.”
Like many people who suffer from anorexia, Jundef was an overachiever and a diligent student, a type-A personality. She was valedictorian of both her elementary and high-school class. Her anorexia began innocently enough: a diet, when she was 13 years old. She wanted to lose some weight for her twin brother’s bar mitzvah.
“I got a lot of compliments and I thought that was nice,” she said. “If it looked good to lose some weight, I should probably lose some more. That’s something you’ll hear from everyone who has an eating disorder.”
Jundef began restricting what food she ate. She looked a little skinny and fainted twice, but school officials figured it was just because of stress. She also began running. “People thought it was normal I was so exhausted,” she said.
But a routine medical check-up in the 12th grade found otherwise: At 5-foot-3, she weighed 93 pounds. She was officially diagnosed with anorexia, and her doctor recommended a psychiatrist. The diagnosis shocked Jundef and her family. “I was a well-adjusted, happy teenager,” Jundef recalled. “Psychiatrists were for crazy people.”
Like many girls her age in the Orthodox world, Jundef intended to attend a seminary in Israel the year after she graduated. Her family worked out a deal with the doctor: Jundef would be allowed to go if her weight increased to 104 pounds. Gaining weight was harder than she initially imagined. Part of anorexia is a phobia around food. Jundef managed to boost her weight to 97 pounds and then discovered a way to trick the scale: drinking copious amount of water before being weighed. She got to go to Israel.
Away from her family, Jundef had an easier time not eating. She was weighed every two weeks by an oblivious doctor in Jerusalem. Before the appointment, she’d put on baggy clothing loaded with weights and down at least 20 water bottles; after her appointments, she’d pass out in an alleyway next to the office.
Despite her anorexia, however, Jundef still managed to be active in her seminary. She remembers her time there as one of the happiest of her life; she only realized something was wrong when the seasons changed. “I was getting colder and colder as winter set in,” she said.
Eventually, her hair began falling out and she found it harder to concentrate. Sitting in chairs was painful. Her weight was down to 80 pounds, and her heart rate dropped to the 40s. She flew home and enrolled in a day-treatment program in a Toronto hospital for teenagers suffering from eating disorders. “My family didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I wasn’t allowed to tell people [the truth]. We told people I had mono.”
In the program, where Jundef was the only Orthodox woman, she found that her goals and behavior didn’t always match up with those of the people around her. “I was coming in wanting to get better, and these were kids who were tricking the system,” she explained. “They taught me a whole bunch of things: how to hide my food, how to exercise when the staff wasn’t looking.”
Not wanting to trouble her parents to drive her every day, Jundef signed up to stay in the hospital. Since she was 18, the hospital placed her in the psychiatric ward where she signed a waiver giving them full control. “I was young and I didn’t understand the implications. It was horrible,” she said.
What occurred then, according to Jundef, was something straight out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She was terrified of food, so she didn’t eat. Because she didn’t eat, she was punished. She wasn’t allowed to attend the day-treatment program; other privileges were revoked, and she was locked in an acute psychiatric ward. Her parents weren’t allowed to visit her. Eventually, she said, she was chained to a bed and force-fed through a naso-gastric tube that she pulled out repeatedly.
“I got a verbal apology [from the hospital] eleven years ago,” Jundef said. “They apologized that I had an ‘unpleasant stay and perhaps they should have done things differently.’ They didn’t say outright how wrong they were.”
Today, Jundef’s voice is still frequently hoarse from the damage done to her vocal cords. But the damage done to her psyche was even greater. Over five months in the hospital, she gained 10 pounds but became more troubled mentally. “I was gaining weight but getting sicker and sicker in my head,” she said. According to Sacker, punitive treatment doesn’t work because of the complicated nature of anorexia; in fact, he said, it can actually make things worse: “Punitive measures reinforce the power of the eating-disorder identity,” said Sacker.
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