Q and A with Rabbi Goldwasser


Issue of March 12, 2010/ 26 Adar 5770

Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser is renowned as a radio personality, public speaker, adviser on eating disorders and instructor at Touro College. His most recent work is Starving Souls: A Spiritual Guide to Understanding Eating Disorders (Ktav). He is the rav of Khal Bais Yitzchok in Brooklyn.

Michael Orbach: What compelled you to write Starving Souls?

Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser: I have been involved with eating disorders for two decades. Eating disorders is a mystifying illness, and people are desperate for answers. In order to help patients and their families better understand what they are going through and how to be helped, I have been asked by some of the leading doctors in the field to share some of the knowledge and insights that I have.

The clinching factor was a call that I got in middle of the night from across the globe. A 20-year-old eating disorder patient was sitting on the curb ready to take his life. The individual decided to make one last call and that call was to me. After a very intense discussion and, subsequently, follow-up sessions, the individual blurted out to me: “The information that you have, particularly your methodologies in a spiritual context, and your understanding of this challenge are only available to those people who know you, who live in your community, or have the luxury to be able to travel in to see you. Why don’t you make it available to everyone?”

MO: Are there any hard numbers for how many kids suffer from eating disorders?

DG: The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders estimates that eight million people in the United States struggle with eating disorders. Of those eight million people, 86 percent report that the illness began before they reached the age of 20.

Last week, I saw a little boy as an anorexic patient who is only ten years old. The illness cuts across all socio-economic and religious groups. It affects the young, even at elementary-school age, and strikes the old, including senior citizens. The illness knows no bounds.

The statistics indicate that among students between the 4th and 6th grades, nearly 40 percent of students have tried dieting. An estimated one in 30 of all dieters develop compulsive dieting attitudes and behaviors. Of these, one quarter will develop an eating disorder of some sort.

MO: Are there different causes for the different eating disorders?

DG: No two eating disorders are exactly alike, and the causes are many. The illness is enigmatic and sometimes it is difficult to pinpoint a specific cause and/or catalyst.

Among the possible core reasons for the development of an eating disorder are: lack of self-esteem, extreme dieting, intense competition, various forms of abuse, compulsive obsessive disorders, and Body Dysmorphic Disorder. This is a condition where the sufferers see themselves as ugly, no matter how normal they look to others.

MO: Has the problem gotten worse in the Jewish community or are we just more aware of it?

DG: A little bit of both. The numbers have definitely increased within our community. However, I would like to point out that the numbers are not greater than in the general population. What is scary is that in our insular community, where the percentages for at-risk behaviors are usually much lower, the number of people within our community affected by an eating disorder is similar.

There is certainly a greater awareness and understanding that something must be done. Just this past week I was asked to speak in two schools — at one addressing the entire parent and student body, and the other only for the students.

In contrast, years ago I was invited to a major Jewish community to address their school on a separate topic. However, mindful of my experience with eating disorders, they asked if I would also interject some comments about eating disorders. When I arrived at the airport of this community, the driver had an “emergency” call for me from the president of the school. “Please speak about anything that you want,” said the caller, “but please don’t mention a word about eating disorders.”

I think our community today is more educated and is more willing and open to talk about the challenge.

MO: Can you pinpoint any causes for the increase?

DG: There are a number of reasons why eating disorders is on the rise. Eating disorders have become, if you will, “in-style,” and there is almost an acceptability today of this problem. The media constantly bombards the public with images of self-starvation, which has made a great impact on consumers. The Internet has promoted a rise in eating disorders with pro-ana and pro-mia sites that actually teach individuals how to become anorexic/bulimic, and visitors to the site are encouraged to extend and deepen their involvement in eating disordered behaviors. Certainly the increase in competition and pressure in the school environment, the workplace, shidduchim, as well as difficult family dynamics have all been compounded in today’s world.

MO: How do you think the Jewish community is dealing with it?

DG: I believe that a great effort is being made to address the concern of eating disorders within the community. Schools are initiating programs for their students; organizations such as the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel have run programs and seminars on the topic as a public service to the community. A while ago, I was approached by the Board of Jewish Education to help in the development of a curriculum for elementary school age children promoting self-esteem and body image. The editors at Ktav Publishing House were more than excited to bring the message to the masses. These are certainly steps in the right direction.

Years ago, the parents of an eating disorder patient wanted to make an appointment with me together with the eating disorders doctor. They had a strange request, though. They wanted to schedule the appointment for 6:30 in the morning because they were afraid that someone would see them. We accommodated the request.

Baruch Hashem today I no longer get requests for 6:30 AM appointments.

The veil of secrecy has been somewhat lifted. However, it has not been removed.

MO: Are we missing the boat in a way?

DG: It’s difficult to say that we’re missing the boat, but we certainly need to pay more attention to the red flags that go up around us. Much more knowledge is needed in order to develop a greater understanding of what an eating disorder is, what some of the underlying causes are, and what the challenges are that face us and our children.

A short while ago parents called me in panic. They had observed their teenage boy being mechalel Shabbos (desecrating the Sabbath) for the first time. He was actually doing something so trivial, like stepping on the scale and weighing himself on Shabbos!

They immediately made an appointment with me, concerned where they would now send their “youth at risk.” Shortly after the young man sat down with me, he revealed that - unbeknownst to his parents - he was anorexic. The last thing this sincere young man wanted to do was to desecrate the Shabbos. However, because of the eating disorder, he just could not control his compulsion to weigh himself.

MO: If you had a message to tell parents what would it be?

DG: Believe in your children.

Encourage them.

Help them to develop a healthy self-esteem.

Show your positive appreciation of your children and do not make any negative comments about body image and their looks.

Read and follow the ten steps of prevention listed in Starving Souls.

Pray for the good health of your children, daily.

Ask for help from Hashem in raising well-adjusted, healthy, inspired children.