Several years ago, my wife received a desperate call from a community member who was aware that several of our children had been diagnosed with celiac disease. He proceeded to explain that a close friend in New York had a child suffering from malnutrition. This child, also diagnosed with celiac disease, had become gravely ill, nearly to the point of hospitalization, but was slowly being nursed back to health.
My wife quickly contacted the boy’s mother to share information. Living with celiac disease isn’t “the end of the world,” but it’s extraordinarily difficult to maintain a gluten-free diet while simultaneously observing the laws of kashrus. There were few celiac websites at the time, and certainly nothing that was specifically geared to the observant Jewish community.
A few weeks later, this mother was in a health food store and recognized another friend who, looking both confused and panicked, was attempting to sort through various gluten-free (GF) products on the shelf and in her cart. As it turned out, her child had also been recently diagnosed with celiac, and she was at a complete loss as to what do or how to feed him. She had many anxious questions: How would she be able to cook for both her family and her child? How would she be able to explain celiac to her child’s principal and teachers? How would this condition affect her child’s ability to socialize with other children?
Feeling totally confused, frustrated and alone, this woman was also referred to my wife for information. Once again, my wife spent quite a great deal of time consulting and sharing what she knew. Today, baruch Hashem, both mothers are coping with their children’s gluten-free dietary needs and are no longer frightened about the future.
But this scenario played itself out many times over the years. Because my wife was frequently referred to other parents of newly diagnosed children, we began looking for a way to reach out to the frum community. We wanted to create a resource they could refer to in the privacy of their home. If they needed further personalized help, we would provide that as well.
Eventually, we came up with the idea of developing a website, FrumCeliac, and obtained the haskama of Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon, mashgiach of Bais Medrash Govoha in Lakewood. After explaining what we were hoping to accomplish, we were given both encouragement and a blessing to succeed in helping others who needed to maintain a gluten-free, kosher diet. That was the beginning of the FrumCeliac’s website.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Much has happened since those early days. The FrumCeliac website is currently accessed by many both inside and outside of our own community, as well as sparking interest from teachers and principals who want more information to assist their celiac students.
One of things we’ve repeatedly heard is that people traveling abroad, and especially students that go to Israel for a year, feel particularly concerned and helpless when it comes to being GF. We are currently looking for those who travel or students who have studied in Israel to share their experiences. We also welcome younger kids who want to talk other youngsters in the hopes of offering encouragement and advice.
While celiac disease does impose restrictions on children (who may not be able to eat and drink everything their friends do), there are an increasing number of products being introduced by major food corporations, many of them with kosher certification.
The future goals of the Frum Celiac include:
- Making the connection – connecting people for support and GF shabbos meals.
- More extensive GF listing of products that deal mostly with the observant Jewish community (we call them Jewish brands).
- More direct support articles dealing with current issues affecting the kosher GF.
- Restaurant database of those establishments that either have a GF menu or serves dishes that can be made GF.
- And much more.
As we progress, we welcome any assistance on this project.
For those who don’t know, celiac is one of the most well-known gastrointestinal genetic diseases affecting over three million Americans, with 95% of these individuals undiagnosed. While celiac does not specifically target the Jewish population, it is more common in Caucasians of European ancestry which overlaps with Ashkenazim. Thus, a high percentage of Ashkenazi Jews are afflicted with this disease.
Celiac prevents the body from digesting gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, barley, and many varieties of oats. In any autoimmune disorder, the body’s immune system will attack itself instead of defending against dangerous pathogens. In celiac, gluten will trigger the immune system to damage the lining of the small intestine so that nutrients cannot be absorbed and food is unable to be digested, resulting in serious health effects. Left untreated, celiac can cause malnutrition and further complications.
It wasn’t all that long ago when the terms “celiac” or “gluten-free” would evoke an empty stare from most people. What’s especially interesting to note is that the past few years have brought a surge in celiac awareness, so much so, that it is now considered “the in thing” in healthy lifestyle choices. Because many celebrities have gone “gluten-free,” food manufacturers have discovered the profitability in creating and distributing more GF products. There was once a time when GF products were hard to find, few had any sort of reliable kosher certification, it was unheard of to have GF products that were Pas or Cholov Yisroel.
Today, although the challenges remain and the selections are still limited, more vendors are starting to offer gluten-free items or at least make note of a product’s gluten status. Because there are many situations when a consumer might assume that a grain-less product is gluten-free, cross-contamination in factory environments continues to be a health risk for most celiac individuals. It has become critical, therefore, for manufacturers to note if a product potentially contains gluten in trace amounts. This allows consumers to make intelligent health choices for themselves or family members.
To search the OU’s database, please visit:
OU Kosher Product Data Base: Gluten Free
To read other OU articles on the subject of Celiac’s and gluten-free, please visit:
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.
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