Philadelphia, PA - In a reflection of the rising rate of eating disorders in the Jewish community, the country’s oldest residential facility for women with disorders such as anorexia and bulimia now offers a track specifically for Orthodox Jewish women.
Since it opened its doors some 25 years ago, the Renfrew Center in Philadelphia has maintained an inclusive atmosphere that welcomes patients of all faiths, but as the years passed, and as the number of Orthodox patients in Renfrew increased, the center’s leaders decided it was time to create a program to accommodate the religious population. This past April, Renfrew officially launched a specific track for Orthodox women.
“The staff at Renfrew is well-aware of how close-knit the Jewish community is,”<p>explained Cindy Shore, Renfrew’s assistant vice president of northeast operations. “Since familial and communal support is so important to the recovery process, we’ve started providing group programs sensitive to Orthodox Jews to give those patients an even better chance at recovery.”
Eating disorders affect between 3-5 percent of the general population over their lifespan. According to Dr. Marcia Kesner, a psychotherapist who specializes in treating self-harming behaviors, and who works with Orthodox patients in Brooklyn and Manhattan, the numbers of girls in the Orthodox Jewish community suffering from eating disorders may be higher than in the general population.
“Shidduchim pressures,” Kesner explained. “Boys are sophisticated enough and have learned what a size 2 is and they are asking through their parents or through their shadchanim for a girl who’s that size.”On a more positive note, Kesner added, the Orthodox community is better prepared to deal with such issues than it was a few years ago.
“A key component of this track is that it allows women to relate more comfortably in therapy groups with others who share their background and values,” said Dr. Esther Altmann, a consultant to the Renfrew Center's track of treatment for Orthodox Jewish patients suffering from eating disorders
“I think programs that are more culturally sensitive to patients’ religious and ethnic identities enhance their feelings of being understood, which facilitates the collaborative effort between patient and therapist that is so fundamental to successful treatment,” Altmann said.
Some parents in the Orthodox community are wary of sending daughters into treatment programs where secular patients could influence them.
“Oftentimes, patients in residential eating disorder treatment programs discuss their experiences with casual s*x, recreational drugs and alcohol use, as well as make general cultural references that the Orthodox community tries to shield their children from,” said Shore.
This program aims to make religious parents more comfortable and at ease with the knowledge that the new track offers a space that, in Altmann’s words, is “more consistent with the mores of their community.”
The track itself consists of therapeutic group meetings of Orthodox patients, as well as having the patients partake in Orthodox-only communal meals, which given kashruth requirements, allows a more comfortable environment for the participants. Traditional Jewish foods like chicken soup and kugels are incorporated into the patients’ menu to help them transition from the program back to their families and communities.
One common theme of the group meetings is “bishvili nivrah haolam” — “for me the world was built” — which focuses on building self-esteem in young women who may feel lost within the strict confines of the Orthodox community. Dating and marriage is another common theme; the world of Orthodox matchmaking and dating is fraught with enough pressure and anxiety without the added stress of an eating disorder.
While some of the therapists who coordinate the groups are observant, even those who are not Jewish are aware of the sensitivities of young Orthodox women. Dr. Altmann frequently consults the Renfrew staff on matters relating to Orthodox life, such as the priority on dating and marriage at relatively young ages; observance of kashrut, Shabbat, and holidays; and the common experience of growing up in a large family, often taking responsibility for many younger siblings.
A former patient of the Orthodox track at Renfrew, who asked to not be named, said she found herself impressed by the environment.
“When I first got there, I found that I didn’t have to worry about being able to continue my traditions in residential treatment, and never had to worry about technicalities having to do with kashrut. I was always able to speak my mind and [the] staff and patients were never anything but respectful and welcoming,” she said. “The fact that the Renfrew program had a track geared toward Orthodox girls, and was therefore able to deal with concerns and issues I had, made all the difference.”
Renfrew also offers outpatient and intensive day programs at nine locations including New York, New Jersey and Florida. For more information go to renfrewcenter.com or call 1-800-RENFREW.