Jewish Journal

Premarital counseling gets short shrift in Jewish L.A.

by Shoshana Lewin-Fischer

February 8, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Couples make many choices that represent shared values in the run-up to a wedding, from filling the ceremony with long-held family traditions to tackling stress-filled tasks like whittling down the "I can't believe we know this many people" guest list.

Often such to-dos are completed in the hurried context of daily life, including requisite counseling with a rabbi.

Premarital counseling can be a time for honest reflection and sharing, but frequently the lines of communication can get buried under layers of tulle and wedding cake.

At a time when shows like MTV's "Engaged and Underage" and VH1's: "My Fair Brady" have made weddings out to be the fun, natural step after prom, prerequisite counseling is increasingly being looked at as a party pooper.

Rabbi Karen Deitsch has encountered the negative stigma associated with premarital counseling. She says that although the couples approaching her to officiate at their weddings believe they are ready for marriage, not all grasp the depth of commitment marriage requires.

"There's a difference between relationships and recreation: recreation is going somewhere with someone and doing something fun; relationships involve the difficult things, and it's 100 percent full time," she said.

Deitsch noted that many engaged couples now view "getting married as the end result ... not a step on the lifecycle journey."

Given that weddings as lifecycle events call for minimal study and preparation, compared with the two to three years required for b'nai mitzvah, some wonder whether making requirements for premarital counseling more stringent might help to minimize divorce among Jewish and interfaith couples.

There are currently no substantive guidelines regulating how often a rabbi and couple should meet, or what they should talk about before the wedding. Some rabbis might meet with a couple as many as five times, while others might get together once or twice and devote much of that time to reviewing ceremony details. Also, other than one program through the University of Judaism (UJ), the organized Jewish community has few direct counseling resources to offer engaged couples.

"We could and should be doing a better job in getting couples to counseling and spending more time and resources on it. With divorce rates rising, it would be money well spent," said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Roughly half of all marriages end in divorce. According to the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-2001, 9 percent, of all American Jews currently are divorced, only 1 percent below the national population. Premarital counseling is often cited as a way to lower the odds of divorce.

When Sinai Temple's Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei counsels a couple before their wedding, he covers a litany of issues, ranging from finances to parenting. While he's dedicated to the counseling aspect of his job, he acknowledges the limits of the services he can offer. If he senses that a topic could become a problem for a couple, he refers them to a professional.

"Marriage is a sacred partnership; it must be treated as such, involving the best people who are most qualified to help a couple make their relationship work," he said.

Dr. Joel Crohn, a clinical psychologist who works with Jewish and interfaith couples, agrees with Schuldenfrei. But he sees the dearth of Jewish premarital counseling programs in Los Angeles as emblematic of a larger problem facing the Jewish community.

"The community is worried about Jewish continuity. You're going after people on the edges ... but what about the core -- the core is Jewish marriage," said Crohn, author of "Beyond the Chuppah: A Jewish Guide to Happy Marriages" (John Wiley & Sons, 2001).

The Jewish community's premarital programs are "unbelievably weak compared to the Christian community," said Crohn, who developed a now-defunct premarital counseling program with Diamond and Valley Beth Shalom's Rabbi Harold Schulweis several years ago.

Crohn believes the organized Jewish community should adapt the Catholic model of premarital counseling as a way to prepare Jewish and interfaith couples for the road ahead.

Before Catholics are allowed to marry in the church, engaged couples must participate in a course on marriage called Pre-Cana. Each parish handles Pre-Cana differently, teaching it over one weekend or an entire month. Pre-Cana programs feature married volunteers sharing experiences from their own marriages, helping guide engaged couples through topics they can expect to face in the years ahead.

In addition to Pre-Cana, Los Angeles Catholic Engaged Encounter offers a weekend where couples, Catholic and non-Catholic, can talk about their relationship, including their strengths and weaknesses, desires, ambitions, goals, as well as attitudes about money, sex, family and society.

The L.A. Jewish community currently has only one institutionally run Jewish premarital program, the UJ's Making Marriage Work.

The program, run through the university's Department of Continuing Education, has been around since the early 1970s, features 10-week classes each quarter. The majority of the couples who enroll are in their 20s and 30s, with class sizes ranging from 30 to 40 couples. Spring quarter has the highest enrollment, due to the popularity of summer weddings.

"People who took the class in the 1970s have children in it," said Judy Uhrman, the program's director. "It has proven itself. We ran a study of alumni -- their divorce rate is 9 percent."

In addition to the program's curriculum, each couple has two sessions with a rabbi, one session with a therapist and one session with a financial planner. Unlike Pre-Cana and similar premarital couples groups, Making Marriage Work doesn't feature advice from already married couples. But when asked, Uhrman said it "would be helpful to include married couples."

Uhrman credits part of the program's success to its group dynamic.

"A lot of the students become bonded [after the class] and stay together as chavurot," she said, referring to small Jewish social groups. "If there are no particular problematic issues, group counseling works better. It brings up things you don't necessarily think about when you are in love."

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles also has yet to tackle the issue of premarital counseling in a structured group setting. Federation beneficiary agency Jewish Family Service, for instance, offers no premarital classes or programming. Instead, the nonsectarian agency tends to see many married couples "in deep trouble, looking at divorce," said Dr. Margaret Avineri, the agency's director for clinical and disability services.

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