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Jewish Diabetes

By David Mendosa

Last Update: January 14, 2002

It's hard enough to have diabetes without being Jewish. But observant Jews have to balance Jewish dietary laws with medical restrictions. And if that wasn't enough, the prevalence of diabetes among Jews is higher than for most other people.

When Nechama Cohen was diagnosed 16 years ago with type 1 diabetes, she was the mother of five children. She says that it was hard for her to find the answers she needed to many issues pertaining to diabetes and a Jewish background.

Food is the focus of Passover.

Most of these questions concern food, including fasting, amounts, and types. They are of particular concern at the High Holidays and Pesach (Passover).

"The Yom Kippur [the holiest day of the Jewish year] following my diagnosis was my first fast as somebody with diabetes, and I decided that I should be able to fast," Nechama recalls. "But everybody always said that people with diabetes shouldn't fast. And by Jewish law somebody with diabetes is also not supposed to fast, because it's a health matter. But on Yom Kippur the focus is on the fasting. The rabbi told me that we do everything that we can in order to fast."

Food is the focus of Passover, especially the Seder, which is the ceremonial meal eaten on the first two nights of Passover to commemorate the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. The issues at Passover for people with diabetes are the amounts and different foods and the change in schedule, eating late at night.

Determined that others should not find it so difficult to get what they need, she started searching for people in a similar situation and found 17 young orthodox Jewish women with families and diabetes. Most of them lived near her home in Brooklyn.

Thus began the Jewish Diabetes Association, which Nechama founded and continues to lead. Little by little this small group of women developed into a large group of parents. Over the past three to five years, it has grown from 40 mothers meeting in a home to a membership of 500 families. Between 60 to 70 percent of the members live in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and others live around the country. The association now sponsors a variety 16 support groups geared to all ages including siblings, spouses, young married, and singles.

Six months ago the association set up its Web site. "The news and events area is the most important one," Nechama says, "because many of our members rely on us for that information." The association also has a printed magazine and a public mailing list, which currently has 107 members.

The Jewish Diabetes Association uses all these resources to keep in touch with their members. That's important because of the higher incidence of diabetes among Jews.

One study in support of this statement can be found the International Diabetes Federation's "Diabetes Atlas 2000" CD-ROM. It says that 7.2 percent of Israelis have diabetes. This is based on the study by H. Bar-On and others, "Serum glucose and insulin characteristics and prevalence of diabetes mellitus and impaired glucose tolerance in the adult Jewish population of Jerusalem" in the Journal of Cardiovascular Disease 1992, pp. 75-81.

Nechama Cohen's personal quest for information on how to balance the medical requirements of her diabetes with Jewish law led to her founding an organization to help all Jews who have diabetes. It is her mitzvah. 

The American Diabetes Association originally published this article on its Web site as one of my “About the Internet” columns.

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