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Girls and Food

The organizations of Jewish life have developed a fascination with what girls do—or do not—eat. Ever since a blockbuster Kolot conference last year in Philadelphia on “Food, Body Image and Judaism,” offshoot workshops have taken place in hopes of bringing the message home. Other projects are also in the works:

  • The Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations has prepared a resource guide and curriculum, “Litapayach Tikvah/To Nourish Hope.” The manual includes information about eating disorders, testimonials, resources, and a liturgy section with prayers and rituals.
  • The Jewish community centers in Chicago are beginning the work to try “to change our JCC culture” by creating an eating disorders curriculum for staff, explains executive director of the Bernard Horwich JCC, Nancy Levinsky, who is spearheading the project, funded by the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Greater Chicago. She hopes staff members will become aware of body issues and will integrate healing discussions into JCC activities.
  • In Brooklyn, Dr. Ira Sacker has teamed up with Orthodox rabbi Dovid Goldwasser to create Helping to End Eating Disorders (HEED), a program for Orthodox teens (LILITH, Fall 1998). (718) 240-6451
  • The Renfrew Center has established a treatment program on Long Island for Jews who suffer from eating disorders and keep kosher. (516) 935-7400

Still, Jewish organizations generally have not invested in these programs. “The biggest hurdle,” says Marcia Hochman, of the UAHC, “is to convince the professionals who work in our organizations and schools and camps that this does happen….I don’t think most Jewish professionals and organizations have a clue about all this.” Adding to this “not in our house” mentality is a more conceptual problem, says Karen Smith. We don’t know what the effects of Jewishness are on eating disorders. “We can’t sit down with Jewish girls and give them theory, because we don’t have theory yet.”

Those who have organized programs offer some guidance for anyone trying to do this in her own community:

  • Discuss these issues casually. “Once we’re there talking about ‘eating disorders,'” says Smith, “girls are getting a little defended.” One interesting evening billed as a discussion of “Body Images and Eating Disorders” through the Beit Rabban Jewish day school center drew only four or five teens. Girls respond better to discussions of eating disorders when they are not approached head on.
  • Be sensitive around the holidays. Yom Kippur fasting and Passover feasts may be hard for girls concerned about weight.
  • Heal yourself. Mothers will be of little help to their daughters’ positive body image if they themselves are constantly dieting.