Fighting food allergies becomes another ritual at synagogues, schools and camps
No challah on Shabbat for those with celiac disease or wheat allergies. No cheesecake for Shavuot for those with dairy allergies. No mishloach manot gift packages on Purim for kids with severe allergies to the treats inside.
Synagogues and other Jewish organizations are seeing a rise in the number of children and teens who suffer from food allergies, and are adjusting to make sure that no one is endangered or feels left out—from nut-free policies to separate gluten-free kitchens.
For some, however, such accommodations aren’t enough to make them feel part of the mainstream.
“I try not to let it get the best of me, but in the back of my mind I’m like ‘wow, I really wish I could try what everyone else is trying,’” said Micah Pierandri, 17, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who often feels disconnected from others during community events involving food.
More children and teens are being diagnosed with food allergies than ever. In 2007, only about 4% of children in the United States under 18 reported food allergies, but last year the number more than doubled. A 2020 review of hospital admissions data showed a global increase in hospitalizations for anaphylaxis, a severe and potentially life threatening allergic reaction. One study found that 37% of children in an Orthodox Jewish community had food allergies.
Food allergies can have a significant impact on a person’s mental health. Up to 40% of parents of children with allergies said that they would associate the word “isolating” with their child’s allergy, according to a study by Allergy UK. And while many synagogues are taking steps to become more allergy friendly, holidays and religious events involving food can be a struggle for many children and teens with food allergies.
“I’m that allergy kid that has to sit out or bring their own dessert or their own food to events,” said Pierandri.
Pierandri, who has an airborne allergy to peanuts and severe allergies to pecans, walnuts, soy and eggs, often brings her own food to synagogue events. This can make her feel separated from the rest of the Jewish community during the holidays, even if her food is similar to her peers.
Tu Bishvat and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, are especially difficult to celebrate because of the foods that are involved. On Tu Bishvat, the springtime New Year of the Trees, it’s customary for people to eat nuts and try fruits that they haven’t tasted before. For Pierandri, who has oral allergy syndrome, eating most fruits could cause an allergic reaction. Many Israeli dishes contain sesame or nuts, and her mild sesame allergy and severe nut allergies mean that she struggles to find foods that are safe for her to eat on Yom Ha’atzmaut, forcing her to choose between bringing her own food or eating before she goes.
By listing the ingredients in all food dishes at events, Beth El Temple Center in Belmont, Massachusetts makes it easier for people with food allergies to be included. Around 10% of students at their religious school have allergies. Though the number hasn’t changed much over the past few years, it is high enough that all teachers are notified about students’ allergies, said Joan Perlman, its director of education.
“It’s important to accommodate people with food allergies because it aligns with our core value of being an inclusive community,” said Debbie Ezrin, executive director of Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland. To her, inclusivity means making sure that everyone feels like they belong. Their congregation is a nut-free facility and works to accommodate people with food allergies during any event involving food.
“While the synagogue adheres to traditional Jewish dietary laws, we always ask people to share their dietary needs and do our best to accommodate them,” said Rabbi Daniel Kaiman of Congregation B’nai Emunah, the synagogue that Pierandri attends.
She also feels like her food allergies have stunted her BBYO experience. “Part of me feels like it’s not really having food allergies, it’s more like people not being cautious,” Pierandri said. She’s been to multiple chapter and regional events where there have been peanuts even though people are aware that she has an airborne allergy.
“This is one of the areas where we really try to make sure that we’re accommodating our teens and I think it’s a small step we can take towards creating a supportive, inclusive, welcoming environment,” said Drew Fidler, director of BBYO’s Center for Adolescent Wellness.
Like many other organizations, BBYO has seen an increase in the number of teens with allergies over the past decade. All of BBYO’s conventions are peanut and tree nut-free in order to accommodate teens with nut allergies, and the organization also offers vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and dairy-free meals by request.
“They just want to participate and feel normal and be a part of what’s going on,” she said about members who might feel excluded because of their allergies. At its international convention and summer programs, BBYO has a dedicated area for special meals so that teens with dietary restrictions are able to eat during meals.
Many Jewish summer camps are taking similar steps towards inclusion. “We always tell families that food should never be a reason that campers cannot be at camp or participate in Jewish life,” said Rabbi Ami Hersh, director of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, New York.
Around 10% of the 800 campers that attend each session have food allergies, a larger percentage than in past years. The camp has a dietary specialist who works with each family to find alternative meals for campers. It’s important that the alternative meals closely mirror what the other campers are eating “so that no one’s feeling left out or excluded based on food needs,” Hersh said.
“I think that sometimes food needs and allergies are misunderstood as something that people are just being difficult about,” he said. “No one wakes up in the morning and says ‘I really wish I had a food allergy.’”
After noticing an increasing number of campers with celiac disease, NJY Camps, an organization that runs five Jewish summer camps in eastern Pennsylvania, opened a dedicated gluten-free kitchen in 2011.
Taking care of children with food allergies costs US families over $25 billion each year. When parents have to provide food for their children, it can be expensive and isolate the child even further. In a study by Dalhousie Medical School, all 56 gluten-free products tested were more expensive when compared to their regular counterparts.
At NJY Camps, the camp charges the same for the gluten-free meal plan as for the regular meal plan. “We don’t charge families extra despite the additional cost, it is simply a courtesy provided to those who need it,” said Carrie Youngs, director of Camp Nah-Jee-Wah, its camp for younger kids. Within the last five years, they’ve had as few as 30 and as many as 60 gluten-free campers register for each session.
The gluten-free kitchen has separate staff, equipment and serving area to avoid cross contamination. Like Ramah Day Camp, NJY Camps try to make the gluten-free meals match the regular meals being served that day so that campers with dietary restrictions won’t feel left out.
“Because we’re a kosher camp, some allergies are just a good fit,” she said. The camp doesn’t have to make accommodations for allergies like shellfish because shellfish aren’t kosher. Camp Nah-Jee-Wah is also completely peanut free in order to accommodate campers who have airborne peanut allergies.
Before arriving at camp, families are able to meet with an allergy liaison who ensures that all of their needs are met. “We just feel that accommodating campers and giving them the most incredible camp experience is important for their upbringing,” Youngs said.
Eating away from home can be scary for people with food allergies, especially when those allergies are life-threatening. “My house is the space where I feel most comfortable when it comes to food,” said Josephine Schizer, 21, a sophomore at Harvard University. She’s allergic to eggs, dairy, sesame seeds, chickpeas, kiwi, lentils and peas, but thanks to her school’s Hillel, she’s been able to eat safely while she’s away from home. She’s developed a relationship with the Hillel’s dining hall staff and made them aware of her food allergies. They’ll often make special meals for her so that she’s able to eat.
Her allergies don’t usually make eating a problem during Jewish holidays, but on Passover, a holiday that imposes additional dietary restrictions, she struggles to find nutritious meals because there are fewer options. “Many of the options that I could normally eat are out of the question during Passover because of the holiday or have egg in them because flour gets replaced with egg,” Schizer said. Nearly everyone in her family has allergies, making it easier for her to celebrate Jewish holidays at home.
“I think it’s harder when I’m in places that aren’t my own home,” she said. “It’s harder, but it’s still doable.”
MAREN HETTLER is a contributing writer to JTA and Jlife Magazine.