Ensuring a Culturally-Sensitive Approach to Eating Disorders

Written by Sarah Bateman on . Posted in Health & Wellness

Over the past several years, discussions about eating disorders have markedly increased in the Jewish community. As the Renfrew Center’s liaison to the Jewish community, I believe this is a good thing. These conversations allow all of us — mental health professionals, community and religious leaders, and families — to bring an awareness of a struggle facing many Jewish girls and women and to reduce the stigma that is a barrier to seeking help.

Founded locally in 1985, Renfrew is the nation’s first eating disorder treatment facility. With locations in Bethesda and Towson, Renfrew has consistently provided specialized treatment for the Jewish population across all levels of religious observance. The use of Jewish ritual, tradition, prayer, observance of holidays, and the tenets of Judaism for healing can be utilized as a means to overcome struggles with food, weight, and body-image issues.

The non-profit arm of The Renfrew Center, The Renfrew Center Foundation, recently hosted a half-day seminar that focused on eating disorders and disordered eating among Jewish girls and women. This was part of a series of talks given across the country to raise awareness on this important topic.

Participants at the seminar explored how everyday practices and rituals may be difficult for individuals struggling with food and weight issues. Small groups strategized how to blend rituals into the treatment process and examined various Jewish practices such as Shabbat, bat mitzvah, and mikvah (ritual bath). The presenters shared ideas to support individuals who are having difficulty carrying out these rituals by focusing instead on the meaning behind them and how they can become helpful. For example, instead of getting caught up in the stressors around Passover, focus on Passover’s theme of freedom and identify ways they can “free” themselves from their eating disorder.

Eating disorders are extremely complex illnesses that are expressed through food, weight, and body-image concerns. Treatment, too, must be complex, requiring a multidisciplinary team of seasoned professionals to address the underlying, emotional issues driving the eating disorder.

Much as the Israelites paid homage to the Golden Calf, today we worship at another altar – the altar of thinness, which promises women “salvation” in the form of a thinner body. Seminar participants learned the value of inner wisdom practices to help women make peace with themselves and utilize resources for self-respect, self-love, and self-compassion. Using Torah portions and quotes from Jewish leaders, attendees learned how the wisdom of the sages can be as vital in today’s world as in earlier times.

Embracing gratitude and Jewish rituals that are life affirming and honor G-d and our humanity reinforces the healthy voice that guides one’s path into peace and recovery. Jewish girls and women with eating disorders need nourishment for their bodies and soul. Judaism has the fruits to nourish them.

For more information about the Renfrew Center, call 1-800-RENFREW or visit www.renfrewcenter.com.

By Sarah Bateman


Sarah Bateman, LCSW,the Renfrew Center’s liaison to the Jewish community, ensures that Jewish individuals with eating disorders receive culturally sensitive treatment. She has a private practice in New Jersey, provides training for professionals, lectures in schools, and raises awareness of eating disorders in the Jewish community.