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High Anorexia Rates Puzzle Rabbis in NY's Orthodox Jewish Communities

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By the time her rabbi came to visit her, she was emaciated. It was a matter of life and death.

The New York Times:

In the large and growing Orthodox Jewish communities around New York and elsewhere, rabbinic leaders are sounding an alarm about an unexpected problem: a wave of anorexia and other eating disorders among teenage girls.

While no one knows whether such disorders are more prevalent among Orthodox Jews than in society at large, they may be more baffling to outsiders. Orthodox women are famously expected to dress modestly, yet matchmakers feel no qualms in asking about a prospective bride’s dress size — and her mother’s — and the preferred answer is 0 to 4, extra small.

Rabbis say the problem is especially hard to treat because of the shame that has long surrounded mental illness among Orthodox Jews.

“There is an amazing stigma attached to eating disorders — this is the real problem,” said Rabbi Saul Zucker, educational director for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, or O.U., the organization that issues the all-important kashrut stamp for food. “But hiding it is not going to make it go away. If we don’t confront it, it’s going to get worse.”

Referring to the high risk of death from heart problems and suicide in patients with anorexia, he said: “This isn’t a luxury type of disease, where, O.K., someone is a little underweight. People die.”

As a teenager, Naomi Feigenbaum developed bizarre eating habits that had nothing to do with Jewish dietary laws: Cocoa Puffs and milk in the morning, when she figured she had all day to burn off the calories, and nothing but Crystal Light and chewing gum the rest of the day.

At the kosher dinner table in her home near Cleveland, she said she would start arguments with her parents so she could stomp off and avoid eating. She lost weight so rapidly in high school that she used safety pins to cinch her long skirts around her waist.

By the time her rabbi came to visit her, she was emaciated. He told her that she must attend a treatment program that met on Saturday, the Jewish day of rest, even if she had to violate religious rules by riding in a car to get there. She could even eat food that wasn’t kosher.

“That’s when I realized it was a matter of life and death,” Ms. Feigenbaum said in an interview.

Read on here.

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