By Rochelle Maruch Miller
Saving lives is a central precept of Judaism. Mercaz Female fulfills this precept by fighting eating disorders in its center in Jerusalem. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Eating Disorders, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychological illness. In many cases, those afflicted with the disorder slowly starve themselves to death. Though not exclusively, eating disorders is known to strike a substantial number of females, usually between the ages of 12 and 26. According to statistics, only 10% of those suffering actually receive professional help.
Eating disorders do not discriminate based on religious ideology. Orthodox Jews are certainly not immune; however, they often feel uncomfortable receiving treatment in a non-Orthodox setting. Mercaz Female was founded by Mrs. Batya Cohen in the summer of 2012 to address the urgent need to provide lifesaving, intensive outpatient treatment in an Orthodox setting. Mrs. Cohen, who serves as the center’s clinical director, is able to work with families who speak Hebrew or English. The organization מרכז פימ״ל is named, in acronym form, after Batya’s mother, Faiga Malka Lobel.
Since the center’s inception, members of Jerusalem’s diverse Orthodox community have a place to turn to when they or a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder. Mercaz Female is the region’s only outpatient eating-disorders center established by and for Orthodox Jews. Within its safe, secure, and comfortable setting, Orthodox patients are afforded the highest level of professional treatment. The clinical staff includes Dr. Temira Finesilver, a physician who specializes in adolescent and family medicine. A graduate of the Technion, she is on the faculty of Ben-Gurion University. Dr. Finesilver has worked at Soroka Hospital and a number of other medical centers. She is responsible for medical intake and ongoing review of Mercaz Female’s patients. The center’s superb clinical staff also includes a clinical psychologist, an art therapist, a clinical social worker, a family therapist, dietitians, and family mentors.
Because eating disorders impact the entire family, families also participate in regular family counseling, which can be provided in both Hebrew and English. Ongoing, intensive training from the Shahaf Institute in Tel Aviv is provided to the staff of Mercaz Female, who then apply Shahaf’s highly successful methods to Mercaz Female’s Orthodox setting.
Mercaz Female is also working to heighten awareness of the dangers of eating disorders and the urgent need for early detection and treatment. “We aim to increase public awareness of eating disorders in order to aid in their prevention and detection. Our first educational seminar for staffs of area Orthodox schools was a huge success,” says Rabbi Shmuel Jablon, executive director of Mercaz Female. “Prior to Chanukah, over 40 educators and counselors from over 30 schools came to learn about identifying and, when possible, preventing eating disorders. Those who attended appreciated the practical information, and many reported that they would be taking it back to share with their colleagues and families.”
Because they have English-speaking counselors and dietitians, they have the ability to help students and immigrants from America. Before students with eating disorders leave their families, they should get clearance from their health-care team, both medical and psychological, and have support in place in Israel, says Rabbi Jablon. Parents can participate in regular counseling sessions via Skype. Naturally it will be important for Mercaz Female’s staff to have information provided by the student’s American health-care team.
“Seminary and yeshiva students come to Israel to devote themselves to learning Torah and to consider the spiritual and emotional direction that they would like their lives to take,” said Udel Bergman, Mercaz Female’s social worker. “Often, this long-anticipated experience is filled with unexpected challenges. In addition, many of the young women know that they will return home to deal with the ‘shidduchparashah.’ These issues, combined with being far from their family, can be overwhelming. Many come to believe, in part due to social and perhaps family pressures, that presenting a perfect image to the world will make their life perfect. Their emotions are in turmoil. Some students fall into the trap of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating. For some this is new. For others it is a reawakening of a prior eating disorder.”
Bergman adds, “At Mercaz Female, we work with our clients on their emotional and physical issues. We offer them a safe haven and the opportunity to deal with the emotional challenges that they are dealing with. The dietitians help them navigate the challenges of institutional food plans or, in some cases, no food plan. The clinical team works together to save our patients’ lives and, in the case of students, make it possible to stay in Israel and continue their studies.”
Unlike other private eating-disorder clinics, Mercaz Female is a nonprofit organization. It is dedicated to providing access to quality treatment, regardless of an individual’s financial situation. This poses a tremendous challenge, as the majority of patients come from lower- to middle-income families. Please support Mercaz Female in their lifesaving mission by becoming a sponsor. Tizku l’mitzvos! To learn more about Mercaz Female and to make a donation, please go to www.mercazfemale.org.