The second time I relapsed, I knew I needed to try something different. My first two hospitalizations for anorexia had been inpatient units. The treatment was rigid with a heavy emphasis on weight gain and not much else. I needed to heal from the inside out, not the other way around.
After a bit of research, I decided to go to a residential program in northern Utah. I’d never been to that part of the country and the distance was part of the appeal. I promised myself I’d stick it out for at least 30 days. I ended up staying for 10 weeks.
In Utah, I met dozens of Mormons. From the patients to the staff to my therapist to the nurses, they were everywhere I turned. “You all were the missionaries my parents warned me to stay away from,” I marveled.
Most of the staff were young Mormon girls in their early twenties, either married, already mothers, or in the midst of their own shidduch crisis, struggling with the stigma of being an “older single.”
I was stunned to see that culturally, Mormons and Orthodox Jews were nearly identical. We structured ourselves in close-knit, insular communities. We identified each other by a style of dress, certain words and phrases, specific prohibited and permitted foods, and places of worship. We shared similar values surrounding family, charity, and moral behavior.
Sure, there were differences, but the similarities far outweighed them. The irony is that Judaism claims to be one of the oldest religions while Mormonism didn’t start until the 1800s. Yet culturally, morally, behaviorally, and spiritually, we were like first-cousins.
At that time, I was already in the process of leaving the community. There were too many inconsistencies that didn’t sit right with my spirit. On a practical level, I wasn’t ready to give up everything I’d known for my entire life, but mentally, I was on my way out.
While I was getting to know the OTD community, I heard about the ex-Mo community. Just like it sounds, this is the sub-culture of the ex-Mormons, individuals who have left the Mormon church at great cost to their personal lives. They’ve had to sacrifice their family and social relationships, face ridicule and accusations of mental illness, and have had their reputations trashed by the members of their former community. Sound familiar?
The Mormons had been so lovely. I had returned from Utah saying that I loved Mormons, and thought they were fantastic people. Then I learned about the accusations of sexual abuse and financial misconduct within the Mormon church. I saw friends being ostracized and shunned by their families because their behavior deviated from the limited list of acceptable options — mind you, these were families that had treated me a like a daughter when I was 2,000 miles away from my own family. Religion trumped family ties. Religion trumped interpersonal relationships. Religion trumped sanity. Sound familiar?
Like Orthodox Jews, Mormons give 10 percent of their earnings to charity. Like the Jews, Mormons regularly engage in acts of chessed towards the members of their community and take care of the needy, sick, and elderly. Like the Jews, Mormons have the equivalent of Gemachs, where people can obtain the things they need, free of charge. Like the Jews, Mormons rally around new mothers.
And it’s not just the Mormons. According to my completely unscientific and inadequate research, communities such as the Amish, fundamentalist Christian communities, and even some tight-knit ethnic communities are notorious for taking care of their own. These communities have the equivalent of the various forms of chessed that the Orthodox community likes to tout as unique and inherently Jewish.
But what if it’s not? What if the level of chessed that the Orthodox community is so proud of, (and so fond of mentioning after conversations of the less pleasant occurrences in the community come up), isn’t actually a uniquely Jewish thing at all? What if generosity and taking care of ones’ own is simply a trait of insular, rigidly structured, ultra-religious communities?
The price of admission and acceptance into these communities is conformity, suspension of independent belief systems, and group think. For such a high price, there have to be perks. It seems like communal kindness is one of them.
But if it’s no longer a Jewish thing, what are we most proud of?