Orthodox and Anorexic
As Orthodox Jews join the battle against eating disorders, one young woman shares her harrowing story
Jundef eventually escaped from the hospital by memorizing when certain doors were unlocked, and she contacted her family, who signed her out of the treatment program. Over the next few months, Jundef’s weight dropped precariously. “I was mad at the doctors,” she explained. “I used to get up in the middle of the night, because my parents wouldn’t let me go [during the day], and run from 3 to 6 a.m. It became a goal: how much weight I could lose.”
In August of that year, when her sister got married, Jundef was unable to stand outside for the chuppah because she was too cold. At 68 pounds, she enrolled in a treatment program in Toronto General. Jundef experienced a radical recovery; in six months she was close to 103 pounds. At 21, she began to date. But that move, so hopeful at first, eventually led to a new and even lower low.
In religious circles, dating is arranged through matchmakers. “The matchmaking world has led to overwhelming pressure,” said Sarah Bateman, a licensed clinical social worker at Renfrew. “Women’s statistics are kept on file by the matchmaker. … The No. 1 question is about women’s size and weight.”
Jundef received a heter, or permission from a rabbi, to wait until she hit a third date with the same young man before telling him about her eating disorder. At the time, Jundef had fully recovered and was pursuing her college degree and teaching full-time.
“It became a lovely cycle of going out with fine young people,” she said. But, “every time they heard about my eating disorder, that was the end of it. … With each ‘no,’ I lost more weight.”
Relapse rates are high for anorexia—between 4 and 27 percent, according to a study out of the University of Maryland. The final break for Jundef came after a series of promising dates with one young man whose parents forbade him from asking her to marry him because they were afraid Jundef’s eating disorder was genetic. “If people will think I’m sick, what difference does it matter if I’m sick or not?” she recalled thinking. “No matter what I do or how happy I am, I’ll always be anorexic to them. I might as well stop fighting so hard.”
But the lowest point for Jundef came when she went down to Miami by herself for three weeks. She rented an apartment and ran for 10 hours a day and swam hundreds of laps, frequently passing out in the pool. She says she can’t recall eating even 100 calories a day at that time. She was wait-listed for another treatment program. Her parents were told that patients frequently die on the waiting list. She was down to 52 pounds by the time a bed opened up in 2007; that’s where her heart stopped in the waiting room.
Jundef doesn’t remember much about the next few weeks, except being hooked up to machines and being wheeled in and out of hospital rooms. When she did make it to a therapy session, someone had to hold her head up. Jundef’s parents threw away most of the photographs from that time, but during our interview, Jundef slid a few photos from an envelope. Her face is a skull with tufts of hair. In one, a ghastly figure lights a menorah.
The hospital allowed Jundef to return home for weekends, but this made things even more difficult; Shabbat and holidays tend to be a struggle for many people recovering from eating disorders. “There are a lot more meals and a lot more courses of food being served,” explained Brodsky. “It’s like sitting down with a room of spiders. These times are particularly hard because they’re faced with their most feared thing at a very abundant level.”
Jundef recovered, but due to a loophole in the system, she was discharged when she gained back half of her weight. Because of how serious her condition was, Jundef was still seriously underweight. “Outpatient treatment doesn’t work with low-weight individuals,” said Brodsky. “There’s too much cognitive impairment.”
Some members of her Orthodox community rallied around her, but the school where she had worked for eight years fired her because, a representative told her, they believed she had a mental illness. Her rabbi called the school, and the school allowed Jundef to continue teaching as long as she didn’t talk with her students outside of the classroom. Almost immediately, she lost her motivation.
She moved in with an aunt in a basement apartment in Brooklyn. At 26, she was back down to 64 pounds. She taught in a Brooklyn girl’s school but quit when she was no longer able to climb the stairs or remember the names of her students.
As Jundef’s heart rate and blood pressure steadily declined, her doctor called Hatzola, the Jewish volunteer emergency services. Two burly members of the organization attempted to take her to the hospital but she fled and slipped into an alcove belonging to a museum. She found an empty office and crawled under a desk. Jundef envisioned spending the rest of her life there. Outside she heard security guards ask if anyone had seen a “little girl with brown hair.”
Her first thought was that she was not little—she was fat.
She came out with her hands up.
Jundef went to three treatment programs after that, including Cornell, Columbia, and finally Renfrew, where she still attends a therapy group. She is considered to be in recovery. “I understood I had an illness and there had to be better treatment than I had experienced,” she said. “I wanted a different life.”
She now speaks frequently about anorexia inside the Orthodox community; her number is often passed around to worried parents and those suffering from eating disorders. (When our interview ended she checked her phone and found a message from one of the people who’d been passed her number: a 29-year-old who suffered from anorexia but couldn’t attend a treatment program because it was co-ed.) She is also teaching full-time again and is considering pursuing a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. And she is dating, though these days she’s more immediately open with what she’s been through. She still lives in Brooklyn but now shares a house with her grandmother. She attends a weekly support group at Renfrew for recovered professionals and works with a nutritionist and a social worker.
And for the first time since she was 15, Jundef has finally stopped exercising.
“I think I enjoy life more than most people, because I lost it,” Jundef said. “How beautiful life is when you’re better.”
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