Hungry To Be Heard – Eating Disorders In Our Community

22 12 2008

weight-lossMany young women in the frum Jewish community are well aware of the pressures that exist for them in today’s society. The shidduch world oftentimes has potential mates asking about body size before character. Choosing between full-time work, being a stay-at-home mother, or a combination of the two roles can drive the sanest to second-guess themselves. And, as wonderful as living among other Jews in a tight-knit community is, it also leaves little room for errors in religious observance.

All these pressures have been cited as reasons for the increase of eating disorders among young Orthodox women. Not many of us make it a mission to actively try and stem the tide of rising rates of anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders. Luckily, Elisheva Diamond is forcing us to do something about it: her new film, Hungry to be Heard, is an absorbing documentary that forces us to confront the issue head-on.

Diamond, a former resident of the Five Towns, served as executive producer. She originally got the idea for the project three years ago, after observing what she calls a lack of awareness on the part of parents. “I would watch these very educated and intelligent parents just be totally clueless when it came to recognizing signs of eating disorders and disordered eating,” says Diamond. “If they just had more information, perhaps the phenomenon of adolescents struggling with those things wouldn’t have become so widespread.”

Diamond also discusses another reason which she feels contributed to the increase of these disorders in the community: Body development is not something that is really discussed, especially in the more “right wing” schools; this only contributes to a sense of shame and chagrin when a youngster’s body begins transforming into that of an adult.

As a member of the Orthodox Union’s Young Leadership Cabinet, Diamond broached the topic of the film with the organization’s higher-ups for initial funding. The idea was given the green light, and she quickly began raising the rest of the funds for the project through parlor meetings and contacting various mental-health professionals as well as former and current eating-disordered patients to appear in the film.

Among the cadre of professionals she communicated with was Sarah L. Weinberger-Litman, a health psychologist who recently earned a Ph.D. from the CUNY Graduate Center. Weinberger-Litman, who became one of the film’s producers, explains, “I was so intrigued by what Elisheva was trying to do that I quickly became involved in all aspects of the project.”

Together, Diamond and Weinberger-Litman have recruited an impressive roster of health professionals and rabbinic authorities to address the various medical, psychological, and halachic issues involved. They include Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of the OU, Rabbi Steven Burg of NCSY, and Dr. Judith Rukay Rabinor, a renowned psychologist. Their interviews are intermingled with accounts from eating-disordered patients, both those who have recovered and those still struggling. Some footage was filmed at the Renfrew Center in Philadelphia, one of the most prestigious and well-known treatment centers for eating disorders, where the staff graciously welcomed Diamond and Weinberger-Litman.

Diamond treated her subjects with the utmost sensitivity. In the film, many of them remain nameless, and their faces appear blurred—but not Aliza Stareshefsky’s. A former patient who lives in Passaic, N.J., Stareshefsky’s name and face have been made public in the film. Currently the director of student programming at a girl’s high school in New Jersey, Stareshefsky is candid and frank in her assessment of the situation.

“When Elisheva called me, quite frankly, I was pretty skeptical that it would actually happen,” says Stareshefsky. “Thankfully, I was wrong. I think it is due time that the Jewish community take some responsibility for educating its members about such an important issue.” Stareshefsky was asked to speak about her eating disorder and recovery at a local school some ten years ago, and since then she has been asked to speak at various yeshivas and Jewish day schools across the country. “It was a little hard for me to speak about my experience before an audience at first, but actually, a lot of my healing came from speaking publicly about it. As a survivor, I need to be a voice for change and give others hope that they, too, can get past this to live a full and healthy life.” Diamond echoes Stareshefsky’s sentiment: “A lot of the people who shared their stories actually told me that participating in the film was a healing experience for them,” she said.

Diamond’s film isn’t only for all-girls yeshivas; she, along with Litman and Stareshefsky, believe speaking to boys about the issues is imperative as well. Stareshefsky, who has been asked to speak to a male audience at Yeshiva University in February, comments, “It’s important to make males aware of the issues involved, because they might be unwittingly contributing to the problem. Additionally, many of them have sisters, wives, and friends who are affected by the issues, so they, too, should have the tools to recognize a potential problem when it exists.”

Though the 40-minute film had its first showing at the OU Convention in Jerusalem in November, the film’s official premiere will take place in New York on Saturday night, January 10, at the Manhattan Jewish Experience. Diamond and Weinberger-Litman are going all out for the event, and have scheduled a Q&A panel following the screening, along with a champagne reception at 8:30 p.m. Doors open at 8:00 p.m.

Rabbi Weinreb, executive vice-president of the OU and a clinical psychologist, explained, “Eating disorders are, unfortunately, a prevalent problem in the Orthodox Jewish community, affecting mostly teenage women. It is one of the few psychiatric disorders affecting adolescents that carries a threat to life. As such, it is extremely important that our community address the problem at its roots and learn how to prevent and treat it. I viewed the film at the OU National Convention, and was impressed by its professionalism, poignancy, and power. Hopefully, it will take our community one step further to confronting and solving the issue head-on.” 

Both Diamond and Weinberger-Litman say their understanding and knowledge of eating disorders, and the issues that come along with them, have become much more sophisticated as a result of their journey towards completing the film. The duo plan to distribute DVDs of the film, at little or no cost, to schools and synagogues in an effort to get their message spread.

Diamond comments, “It might be true that your own child won’t develop an eating disorder, but as a community member, isn’t it incumbent upon you to know the signs so you can recognize it in a friend’s child?”

(News Source: Crown Heights . Info)

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