Jewish Journal

Interfaith Couples ‘Prepare’ for Bliss

by Michael Jackman

Posted on Feb. 10, 2005 at 7:00 pm


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. 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 explained, "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 premarital 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, The Aleph-Bet of Marriage: Journeying Toward Commitment (urj.org/jfc/premarital).

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

Rabbi Harvey Winokur of Temple Kehilat Chaim in Rosewell, Ga. (near Atlanta), who participated in the pilot project, said, "The couples who took it were glowing at the end and praising it to the sky."

Two of his couples even joined 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. The expertise is framed 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 said.

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 program 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 as 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 interfaith issues, a Jewish-oriented counseling center might be the way to go.

In Louisville, Ky., Judy Freundlich Tiell, a clinical social worker and director of professional service at Jewish Family and Vocational Service (JFVS), runs the premarital counseling program. 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," Tiell said.

At 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 said.

She ticks off a list of items couples ought to cover before lifting the veil, including communication, finances, setting boundaries and the pressures of pleasing people, not to mention the stresses of planning a wedding. After receiving the computerized scores, staff members 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 said. "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 JFVS will not overlook Jewish aspects of marriage, either.

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

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

Michael Jackman (www.mjfreelancer.com) is a free-lance writer, columnist and radio commentator for WFPL 89.3 FM, based in Louisville, Ky. His articles have appeared in The Jewish News of Phoenix, The Connecticut Jewish Ledger, The Chicago Jewish News and many others.


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