Jewish Journal


February 8, 2007

Premarital counseling gets short shrift in Jewish L.A.


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. "Our preference is to facilitate the conversation early," she said. "The movement is toward prevention, and a little conversation ahead of time can address things that people are reluctant to do."

Los Angeles' only other known program for unmarried couples was The Aleph Bet of Marriage, presented through the Union for Reform Judaism. However, the program hasn't been offered in area Reform congregations for several years.

On the flip side, the Jewish community does make a plethora of programs available for couples who are or who have already been married.

The UJ offers "Success in Your Second Marriage" and "Challenge of Growth," a class for couples who have been married between two to 15 years.

Jewish Marriage Encounter (JME), a program based on Catholic Marriage Encounter, hosts weekend getaways that take couples away from the distractions and tensions of everyday life to concentrate on communicating with one another. The program, which was founded in 1972, is open to couples married for two years or more, including non-Jewish and interfaith couples.

For newlywed Jewish and interfaith couples and gay/lesbian couples, the Brandeis Bardin Institute (BBI) offers the free Institute for Newly Married Couples. The biannual weekend program is geared toward couples married within the past 18 months.

Although the majority of the couples at the BBI are in their 20s and 30s, couples of all ages attend the weekend.

"We want couples to come and explore the role they want Judaism to play," said Rabbi Laurie Hahn Tapper, director of Brandeis Collegiate Institute and Adult Programs.

BBI keeps the number of attendees low -- 30 couples -- to encourage the bonding found in the UJ's program.

"We want to help them form their own Jewish community. We keep the number low and they walk away with new friends," she said.

The weekend -- which includes discussions, relaxation and hikes -- is "very important to the community," Hahn Tapper said. "It can be hard for newly married couples to find their place. We make it as accessible as possible."

BBI also recently introduced a "check-up" weekend for couples married between two to five years that offers workshops on relationships and communication skills.

While there are no immediate solutions to changing negative attitudes toward premarital counseling or the Jewish community's lack of premarital programming, the Board of Rabbi's Diamond would like to see congregations begin outreach programs to voluntarily address premarital issues within the context of the synagogue.

"Rabbis and congregations are intimately involved with members lives," he said. "A congregation is a group of people that care about one another. When we lose that focus, we lose the essence of what it means to be a caring community."

The Board of Rabbis is planning to bring back a two-year professional skills series, titled "Lilmod Ve-La'asot," or "To Learn and to Do," featuring monthly seminars aimed at helping younger rabbis train with other rabbis and mental health professionals in pastoral issues -- among them, premarital counseling.

"We don't need to meddle, but we need to be there," Diamond said. "Too often we react when we need to be proactive."

Rabbi Deitsch points out that similar advice also works for couples who sometimes need a reminder about the real meaning behind the wedding: creating a new life together where it's not about "you" or "me" -- it's about "us."

"You can't ask someone to give up something of themselves for you," said Deitsch, who is planning a new workshop on the spiritual aspects of relationships. "You can ask someone to give up something of themselves for the relationship."


For more information on the University of Judaism's Making Marriage Work - The Basic Seminar" call (310) 440-1566 or visit dce.uj.edu and click on "Making Marriage Work."

For more information on Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, call (323) 761-8800 or e-mail info@jfsla.org.

For more information on Rabbi Karen Deitsch's workshop, e-mail karendeitsch@yahoo.com.

For more information on the Union of Reform Judaism's "The Aleph Bet of Marriage" program, contact a Reform congregation near you or visit urj.org/jfc/premarital.

For more information on Brandeis-Bardin's Newly Married Weekends, call (805) 582-4450 or visit thebbi.org.

For more information on Jewish Marriage Encounter and its Feb. 17 seminar, call (818) 225-0099 or (800) 887-7544 or visit www.jewishmarriage.org.

For more information on ATID Couple's Havurah, contact Stacey Zackin, ATID director at (310) 481-3244, e-mail szackin@sinaitemple.org or visit www.sinaitemple.org.

For more information on Chabad West Coast, call 1-800-242-2239 or visit www.chabad.com.

For more information on Aish L.A. classes, call (310) 278-8672, e-mail LA@Aish.com or visit www.aishla.com

The Jewish Weddings Board on the Wedding Planning Web site The Knot is not on the pulldown menu yet, but it can be found at talk.theknot.com/boards/ShowForum.aspx?ForumID=399

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