On a Wednesday in July, a few weeks after my sixteenth birthday, I was hospitalized for anorexia. After a full day of appointments and medical examinations, I was led on to the unit around dinner time. A nurse placed a tray of food in front of me and told me that I needed to eat 100% of its contents. I stared at it, because that single tray contained more food than I’d eaten in the past few weeks. Although every other meal in treatment would be timed, for this first meal, I was given several hours to work my way through it, bite after painful bite.
The first person to sit herself down across from me was a girl named Chani, (not her real name), “You’re Orthodox?” She asked, taking in my long skirt and long sleeves. When I indicated that I was, she said, “So was I.” I must have looked skeptical, because she added, “Really. I graduated from Bais Yaakov and then went to Bnos Chava in Israel.” My own sister had just returned from Bnos Chava and I was having a hard time reconciling the image of a Bnos Chava girl that I carried in my head with the jeans and t-shirt clad girl sitting in front of me. Chani explained that she’d been through too much. She’d suffered from too much pain and loss of self throughout the course of her eating disorder to still believe in a God of kindness and love.
I had just completed tenth grade at Bais Yaakov. Admission to the eating disorder unit was the cultural shock of my lifetime. Although I was an avid reader and had learned a lot about secular culture through books, it couldn’t compare to the experience of being surrounded by secular people. There was so much I didn’t know.
My new friends were eager to enlighten me and over the next six weeks, I would encounter many things that blew my naive mind.
I didn’t know how to respond when 14-year-old Noelle told me that she was sleeping with a 32-year old man, and she planned on marrying him as soon as she was of legal age.
I didn’t know how to respond when Hayley told me that she was bisexual, because that wasn’t yet a word that I had encountered.
I didn’t know how to respond when Amber told me that she’d been raped by a staff member at her group home and was worried that she was pregnant.
I didn’t know how to respond when girls cussed each other out or threw trays of food or screamed at their parents on the phone or told their doctors to go to hell. None of that was familiar to me.
But I shouldn’t have been caught so off guard when Chani told me that she’d made the choice to stop being religious. That concept should not have been foreign or uncomfortable to me. I shouldn’t have felt pity or disapproval.
I wish I’d been taught acceptance. I wish I’d gotten the message, at home and in school, that just like we allow converts and baalei teshuva, (Jews who choose to become more religious), to pursue what they perceive to be a path of truth and spiritual enlightenment, we awarded the same respect and admiration to those who chose an alternative path. I wish I could have simply felt compassion and love for Chani, instead of first experiencing judgement and thinking that it was a shame that her faith was so weak. I wish I’d been taught that, first and foremost, Jews are human beings, and treating ALL human beings with kindness and respect is better than only acting kindly to our own. I wish I’d been taught that leaving religion isn’t a character flaw, isn’t a shame, isn’t something to be judged, and is a personal choice that is none of my business, unless the person chooses to share their thought process with me.
The next day, I struggled through my breakfast, but when lunch came around, I couldn’t finish the food on my plate. My stomach turned at the thought of taking even one more bite and I pushed my tray away. My consequence was to sit at the dining table for the next six hours, staring down two bottles of Boost Plus. When Chani walked by, she put a hand on my shoulder and said quietly, “You can do this.” I lowered my head and started crying, her simple gesture of kindness touching me to my core.
I don’t know what happened to Chani but I think about her sometimes, and wish my thoughts towards her had been different. I could have done so much better.