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Jewish Premarital Programs Seek to Address Problems Early

This article originally was published in Community of Louisville, Kentucky and is reprinted with permission of the author.

The rose-colored glasses often worn by couples headed for the bimah can easily hide some relationship blemishes. So when the glasses come off after the honeymoon, the new vision of the future can be a bit shocking. Just to be better prepared, before you take that long trip down the aisle, you might want to make a short trip to a marriage counselor for some Jewish-style premarital counseling. Especially as Jewish matrimony isn't as sure a thing as it used to be.

Lynn Levy, a clinical social worker and Director of Premarital Education in the Reform movement's Department of Jewish Family Concerns explains, "Reform Judaism and other Jewish denominations are experiencing divorce rates that are similar to the rest of society. Decades ago that wasn’t the case."

Rabbis are often highly qualified to perform pre-marital counseling, and will make a few meetings a required part of the marriage prep. But there are also other options for professionally fine-tuning your future within a Jewish framework.

For instance, partly in response to the rising divorce rate, and partly due to increasing numbers of interfaith marriages and decreasing numbers of affiliation, the Reform movement recently started a new marriage-preparation course, called The Aleph-Bet of Marriage: Journeying Towards Commitment (see www.urj.org/jfc/premarital).

So far, the seven-session group workshops have debuted in Atlanta, New York, Cleveland, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Seattle. And they seem to be working.

Rabbi Harvey Winokur of Roswell, Georgia's Temple Kehilat Chaim (near Atlanta), who participated in the pilot project, says "The couples who took it were glowing at the end and praising it to the sky." Two of his couples even affiliated with the synagogue.

The program ($175 per pair), includes a hefty 150-page curriculum, and is facilitated by a licensed social worker. Rabbis attend some sessions, in order to provide expertise in Judaism and Jewish marriage.

That expertise is framed, naturally, within a liberal-Reform perspective. For example, the sessions welcome couples of any sexual orientation and even of different religious backgrounds.

Nevertheless, the topics are based on traditional texts and each of the seven sessions is structured around one of the traditional marriage blessings, the Sheva Brachot.

"The blessing becomes an introduction to, and a point of jumping off the subject matter for the session," Winokur says.

In addition, to be eligible for the course, “The one given is that they had made the decision to give their child a Jewish education and make a Jewish home," Winokur said. "We did intake interviews to determine the appropriateness of their being in the workshop."

While Levy and Winokur have faith that The Aleph-Bet of Marriage pilot will give birth to programs in many cities, the fact is, not all locales have a large enough Jewish community to support group classes. And, innovative, spiritual, and timely as they are, the classes are designed for the relatively narrow group of marriage first-timers.

For the growing numbers of marriage veterans who will be trying again, perhaps even blending families and struggling with faith and inter-faith issues, a Jewish-oriented counseling center might be the way to go.

Judy Freundlich Tiell, a clinical social worker and director of professional service at Louisville, Ky.'s Jewish Family and Vocational Service, runs the premarital counseling program there. The sessions have the broader perspective needed by many couples, including those, "who have been previously married and want to avoid the mistakes they made before."

At the JFVS there's even a place for those first-timers wearing rosy sunshades. Tiell offers them a test called PREPARE (also given by many certified rabbis). Based on interviews with thousands of couples, PREPARE is designed to define strengths and problem areas in the relationship, Tiell says.

She ticks off a list of items fiancées ought to cover before lifting the veil, including communication, finances, setting boundaries, the pressures of pleasing people, not to mention the stresses of planning a wedding. After receiving the computerized scores, staff review the results with the couple (JFVS charges $50 for the test).

Tiell's careful to point out that the assessment isn't a judgment about whether you should marry or not. But "even in the best of marriages you continue to have issues that emerge that you need to deal with," Tiell says. "With PREPARE, some couples are more apt to get help sooner rather than waiting." (Marriage vets can take a similar test called ENRICH, also for $50).

A Jewish-oriented agency like the JFVS will not overlook Jewish aspects of marriage, either.

"We look at couples with different backgrounds, whether different religious faiths or people who come from very different Jewish experiences, and we talk about how they have to talk about those things; we focus on how do you make a Jewish home," Tiell explains.

A little preparation can go a long way. After all, a marriage is intended to be a lifetime adventure, and, as Tiell points out, "The marriage ceremony begins a process of separating you out as a Jewish family."

Hebrew for "the seven blessings," also known as birkot nissuin ("the wedding blessings"), blessings that are recited for a couple as part of their marriage ceremony. The Hebrew alphabet, of which alef and bet are the first two letters. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well.
Michael Jackman

Michael Jackman is a freelance writer, columnist, and radio commentator for WFPL, 89.3 FM, based in Louisville, Kentucky. His Jewish-life articles have appeared in Community, The Jewish News of Phoenix, The Connecticut Jewish Ledger, The Chicago Jewish News, The United Synagogue Review, JewishFamily.com, and many other publications. Read more about his work at?www.mjfreelancer.com.

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