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Marriage is hard work. In fact, it's one of the hardest things you'll do in your lifetime. And with marriage, as with anything else that is meaningful--school, career, athletics--if you really want to be successful, you need to prepare for it.
None of us is born knowing how to be a good spouse or partner. Many of us assume that because we know someone well and love him or her enough to get married, we don't really need any extra help. But there are certain things that you can do that will help you to be better equipped to become an even better partner to your mate.
Through my position as coordinator of the Outreach to Intermarrieds Program with Jewish Family Service, I work closely with many local rabbis. After a conversation many years ago with Rabbi Edward Cohn of Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation in New Orleans, we both wondered aloud about the many engaged interfaith couples we ran across who were all taking some variation of the Pre-Cana courses offered in the Christian churches. Why, we asked, were Jews not offering any such classes? Were we so certain our marriages would succeed? Were we convinced that Jewish marriages didn't need preparation? We did not think so.
Young couples need a solid base on which to place their footing. Rabbi Cohn and I agreed that we should provide an opportunity for these couples to get their grounding in the synagogue. Based on our collective professional and personal experience, we agreed on four major points of interest for young couples. First was communication. We determined that this was the foundation of all relationships and that healthy communication was key to a successful partnership. Second was dealing with conflict. Since no relationship is without conflict, we felt strongly that couples should understand the meaning of conflict, explore their fighting styles, learn how to negotiate and compromise in healthy ways, and learn to avoid painful, hurtful fighting. Third among our top four was intimacy. We felt that true intimacy can be a wonderful but also frightening and vulnerable thing to have. Couples need to discuss their feelings about emotional and physical closeness and build an understanding of what each of them wants and needs in this area of their marriage. And finally there is spirituality. What does it take to have a Jewish home and a Jewish marriage and how important is that for young couples?
With our key areas pinpointed, we developed a four-week curriculum to help prepare engaged couples, mostly interfaith couples, for impending marriage. Using David Luecke's Relationship Manual, we adapted many of the exercises for use with our couples. And thus began the first I Do! Class for newly engaged and recently married couples in New Orleans. In addition to covering the key points mentioned above, we also highlighted the stress of engagements, family issues, the challenges of in-laws and interfaith concerns. Depending on the issues raised in any one particular group, these topics vary in how detailed the discussion becomes. Articles relating to marriage are handed out along with a bibliography for interfaith couples, a Jewish wedding bibliography, a flyer about Jewish weddings, and a set of tips for improving listening skills.
I Do! follows a group discussion format. There are certain "group" questions that all participants are asked to respond to in the group. Members are asked to respond to other questions individually or privately as couples. Often, they first share their responses with each other and then report to the group on the experience or on something meaningful that they discovered while doing the exercise. Not only does the format strengthen couples' relationships, but friendships with other new couples are also made. Throughout the discussions, both the rabbi and myself share thoughts, insights, and information.
A brief outline of the course with a few question examples follows:
Following the final class, couples are encouraged to attend a special Shabbat, Sabbath, service where the topic is marriage. They are invited to stand and the rabbi gives them a special blessing.
Since it's inception four years ago, the I Do! class has become an annual event with six to ten couples participating each year. The rabbi feels strongly that he is doing his religious and rabbinic duty to provide the tools that help strengthen relationships and not simply leaving these young couples adrift in the sea of new marriage. Not only is this fulfilling his duty, it is providing a spiritual nest for couples who often do not yet have a comfortable spiritual home. And Jewish Family Service feels that through this course, we are meeting our mission goal of strengthening families.