Aviva Braun, a social worker and psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders in young women, and Rabba Sara Hurwitz, a pioneering Modern Orthodox spiritual leader at New York’s Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Yeshivat Maharat, are teaming up for an event that will focus on body image from feminist, therapeutic and Torah perspectives. The event — aimed at bat mitzvah-age girls through college age women, and their parents — will take place at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 12, at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. There will also be a screening of “Hungry to be Heard,” the Orthodox Union-produced documentary about Jewish adults struggling with eating disorders.
“Judaism supports the notion that our bodies are sacred,” Hurwitz told The Sisterhood. “Philo, a Jewish philosopher said, ‘The body is the soul’s house. Shouldn’t we therefore take care of the house so that it will not fall into ruin?’ We have an obligation as a community to help foster a positive body image in our own selves and in our children.”
Braun spoke recently with The Sisterhood about the specific challenges of treating eating disorders in the Orthodox community, Braun’s use of a feminist therapeutic model and her forthcoming book that is part memoir, part recipes.
Rebecca Schischa: Generally speaking, what are the pressures placed on young women in the Orthodox community?
Aviva Braun: The pressures on Orthodox women are about looking a certain way; the pressures to look good and stay thin are very much part of the community. But on the other hand, there are all the ceremonial meals we eat on Shabbat and the holidays, when there’s always lots of food on the table, so the messages Orthodox women get are conflicting. Then there are the pressures to do well at school, and pressures to get married at a young age.
What is the prevalence of eating disorders in the Orthodox community?
There is not a higher incidence in the Orthodox community per se, but the fact that Orthodox women wait longer to seek help means it is really difficult to treat. There’s a fear of being found out, and shame or stigma for the family. Women feel it could affect the status of their family, even shidduch [matchmaking] prospects.
You talk a lot about using a feminist therapeutic model in your work. What do you mean by this?
After receiving my master’s degree in social work, I was professionally trained at the Women’s Therapy Centre Institute in New York, where I studied eating and body image problems from a feminist psychoanalytical and cultural perspective.
The feminist perspective is that women develop eating disorders because they are told by the culture at large to deny their need for hunger, for food and for other things. Women’s needs in general should be shrunk so their bodies become shrunk. … So my therapeutic work is about getting women to be able to identify their hunger.
What are the specific challenges involved with working with the Orthodox population?
This is a culture in which women are encouraged to get married young and bring up children. The role of nurturer is very prominent within the Orthodox community. Women are under tremendous pressures to be superwomen — they are expected to work and cook and clean the house and be everything. And a lot of times, this leads to eating disorders because of this pressure to be perfect.
When I work with Orthodox clients, the challenge for me is about helping them identify their innermost desires and hungers, which have not really been acknowledged much in their lives. And often when women get married young, there’s no time to think about these needs.
In my practice, the only way to start the process of recovery is by my clients acknowledging their hunger for anything in their lives, and this doesn’t have to be about the food.
You’re in the process of working on a book. What’s it about?
It’s basically about my own personal experience of healing from an eating disorder, through baking. Connected to the feminist perspective, the book is … part memoir, part research, part recipes. In Orthodox circles I’ve been in, women seem to fear dessert. I personally believe women should enjoy dessert. To deny themselves dessert is for women to deny one of life’s utmost pleasures.