By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Rabbis are taking bold initiatives designed to fortify marriage and prevent divorce, even before the chatan and kallah reach the chupah. Success will depend on community support.
It is no secret that rabbis, mental health professionals and lay leaders of the Orthodox community have become increasingly concerned with the condition of many Jewish marriages and the impact that marital difficulties are having on Jewish families. There is a marked increase in the number of divorces and domestic violence is a documentable crisis. The rising prevalence of marital discord results in serious difficulties in childrearing, and the teen crisis heads the list of contemporary problems in all sectors of the Orthodox world.
As with all difficulties in the sphere of community mental health, preventive interventions are the preferred approaches to the amelioration of problems. It is always difficult, and often impossible, to reverse the course of a deteriorating marriage. Learned abusive behaviors are hard to unlearn, harsh feelings once expressed cannot be withdrawn, and the intercession of well-intentioned relatives and friends complicates matters beyond all hope for cure. The answer lies clearly in the development of programs which will not only nip these problems in the bud, but which will provide tools for preventing them from occurring in the first place.
These problems, of course, are prevalent in the general community as well, perhaps even more severely. In response to this situation, a variety of educational and counseling programs directed toward couples before marriage have been developed nationwide. The State of Oklahoma now mandates such training before it will issue a marriage license, and other states are considering similar legislation. These programs try to provide the prospective bride and groom with the tools and techniques for establishing a sound marital relationship. They teach the skills necessary to achieve healthy communication, intimate relationships, and the management of practical domestic affairs — skills which are eminently teachable, but which are surprisingly lacking in many individuals about to marry. A number of such programs are being developed within the Orthodox Jewish community, albeit on a smaller scale.
At the most recent Rabbinical Council of America convention, its president, Rabbi Kenneth Hain, devoted his presidential address to a call for the development and implementation of pre-marital educational programs across the broad spectrum of our community. He proclaimed the urgent need for these programs, and charged congregational rabbis who perform marriages to insist that couples planning to marry enlist in such programs. He urged them to either conduct classes themselves, or refer chatanim and kallot to other professionals better equipped to conduct these programs.
It is common knowledge that the Roman Catholic Church has developed comprehensive and systematic pre-marital education initiatives; and indeed, clergymen of that faith may not perform a marriage unless the bride and groom show evidence that they have undergone appropriate preparation. The Church’s program contains components of religious education, as well as training in the pragmatics of marriage and family life. Rabbi Hain, and other rabbinical leaders, urge that we consider a similar policy, to ensure that all couples will have at least a modicum of pre-marital education before they reach the chupah, and perhaps even periodically throughout the early stages of the marriage.
A number of model programs of this type have been developed by Orthodox mental health professionals specifically for the religious community. They have presented their approaches at recent conferences of NEFESH, the international network of Orthodox mental health professionals. NEFESH has made the development of these programs one of its priorities and is strongly advocating their adoption in all sectors of the Orthodox community.
One of the model programs, developed and extensively used by Dr. Neal Goldberg and social worker Rachel Pill was presented at the RCA convention. Goldberg and Pill proposed a system that integrates the Torah principles of marriage with the psychological and interpersonal skills necessary to build a foundation for shalom bayit. Envisioning male and female mental health professionals working in close collaboration with a rabbi, they advocate two types of local programs; one for post high schools young adults as part of their general education, and one for engaged couples, specifically preparing them for marriage. The latter includes two required follow-up sessions, one six months into the marriage and the other at the one year mark.
Dr. Jonathan Lasson developed another model, implementing a somewhat different approach with great success. Dr. Lasson developed his program as an outgrowth of his extensive research into the causes of marital breakdown in the Orthodox community. He devised a training program for chatan and kallah teachers, whether they are mental health professionals, rabbis, or skilled lay persons. He specifies a detailed curriculum and additionally describes teaching techniques easily implemented by anyone who will adhere carefully to the instructions and procedures provided. The advantage of these models is that while the rabbi plays a key role, he need not implement the entire program — he can entrust much of it to those with skills supplemental to his own.
In his address to the RCA, Rabbi Hain argued forcefully that before a rabbi agrees to marry a couple, he should insist that the chatan and kallah enroll in a pre-marital program. In the dialogue that followed, rabbis in the audience expressed a number of concerns, including the fact that it is often not the congregational rabbi, but the rosh yeshivah of the chatan who is mesader kiddushin, and that some roshei yeshivah may not recommend such programs. There is no question that these models will have to be presented to the entire range of rabbinic organizations to encourage their adoption.
Rabbi Hain’s initiative received unanimous support from the convention, and his suggestions were incorporated into the formal convention resolutions. It is hoped that the entire Orthodox movement will welcome and implement this initiative and that we will reach the point where such programs will become the norm.
Step One of this initiative involves a joint effort of the Orthodox Union and the RCA to convey the necessity for these programs to a wide audience.
Step Two will take place this fall and winter, as NEFESH professionals meet with leaders of these organizations to create a curriculum based on some of the models already in use.
Step Three will be the distribution of the program to congregational rabbis who will be available to couples nationwide. But it will require the enthusiasm and cooperation of the Jewish community, concerned parents and young adults who want to better their chances of a successful marriage, to make it work.
We have seen enough marital discord and broken families. It is time for rabbis and their congregations to heartily endorse and implement this preventive program. Universal adoption of this initiative will help prevent the agony of broken lives, foster stronger, richer marriages, and ensure family harmony.
Rabbi Weinreb is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Baltimore, Maryland. He is the former chief psychologist of the Potomac Foundation of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md. He is a vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America.
If You Are Getting Married Soon
Until this important initiative is put into national operation during the coming year, the Orthodox Union and the RCA will help engaged couples locate pre-marital classes already being given by various synagogues, rabbis and/or mental health professionals in their geographic area. To obtain information, contact: Frank Buchweitz at 212-613-3188, Frank@ou.org; Rabbi Mayer Waxman at 212-613-8285, WaxmanM@ou.org; or Rabbi Steven M. Dworken at the RCA, 212-807-7888.