Guide for the Conjugally Perplexed

A rising divorce rate and changes in the roles of men and women in ultra-Orthodox society are two reasons for the establishment of an institute dedicated to training marriage counselors.

The couple entered the room and sat at a distance from each other. The woman, attractive, impeccably groomed and unmistakably pregnant, looked upset; her husband, a member of the Gur Hasidim, sat with eyes downcast. Asked by the marriage counselor what had brought them to see her, the wife replied bluntly: "I made a mistake when I married my husband."

They are in their early twenties, she related. Married for about a year-and-a-half, they live in the Gur compound in Jerusalem. In contrast to her husband, she said, she was more "modern" (a codeword in the ultra-Orthodox world for a person who does not fully abide by the community's strict norms). Until she became pregnant, she worked for a commercial firm and had a good salary. Her external appearance is important to her, she said: She likes to dress well and make herself up.

Before getting married, she continued, she did not imagine that her husband would behave according to the restrictive rules of the Gur sect, especially with regard to their personal relationship. Her husband, she complained, did not accompany her to a visit or a wedding. As in the case of the stricter Hasidic groups, she had to leave home before him, and wait for him at the appointed place. She regretted even more that her husband refrained from talking to her. Recently, they had been like two strangers under the same roof. When she finished speaking, her husband burst into tears and said: "I never heard from you what is bothering you, and why you are so angry."

This true story was described last month by a student taking a course in marriage guidance being offered the Israeli Institute for Marriage and Family Studies, a Jerusalem-based ultra-Orthodox institution. There was something surprising in the businesslike response to the story by the 40 or so mostly ultra-Orthodox women in the class. It seemed clear that the women, some of whom were in their twenties while others were a generation older, did not see the bluntness of the wife in the story as something bold or exceptional. Similarly, the readiness of couples from a closed community to seek help and share their problems with someone who is not a member of their family or their community was also perceived as routine.

The institute was founded in 2000 by Rabbi Simha Cohen, one of the veteran marriage counselors in ultra-Orthoddox society. Cohen, who is from Bnei Brak, hooked up with Ami Shaked, a well-known sexologist and expert on conjugal relationships. (In the 1970s, Shaked brought the message of sexology to Israel and revealed to Israelis that it was possible to talk about sex and sexual treatment.) Shaked, who is the institute's academic director, says that as a therapist who met many ultra-Orthodox in his clinic at the Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, he is aware of their need for a therapist who understands their language and their distinctive background. That's why it's important to train ultra-Orthodox marriage counselors, he says.

The institute's studies are divided into learning about marriage according to the Jewish approach, which is Cohen's sphere, and learning how to work with couples, which is Shaked's responsibility. Other lecturers include gynecologists, a female sexologist, an ultra-Orthodox lawyer, and marriage counselors. The institute also founded an organization that incorporates ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox marriage counselors, and runs a hotline called Yaner (acronym for rabbinical marriage advisers), staffed by volunteers and interns, that deals with problems arising in married life.

The institute - which takes pride in its 300 graduates, most of whom are ultra-Orthodox and have received marriage guidance certificates - exemplifies the fast-changing moves toward professional relationship counseling in ultra-Orthodox society. Along with the marriage counselors, whose number has increased within the community, pre-marriage specialists have also begun to offer their services. While a prospective bride and groom used to turn to the rabbi or his wife and receive advice on the religious laws relating to purification and sexual relations, in recent years, counseling has changed significantly - so much so, that rabbis have begun to become apprehensive of the excessive openness.

As a result, a rabbinical committee under the aegis of Rabbi Shmuel Wazner from Bnei Brak, who is known for his extreme conservatism, was established recently to supervise the institute's teachers. And with good reason. According to Orthodox sexologist Rivka Klein, who teaches a follow-up course for the institute's graduates, it is now possible to educate young people in many new subjects, from interpersonal communication to sexuality, that were taboo until recently.

One reason for treating marital problems has been a rise in the divorce rate within the ultra-Orthodox community. The majority of counselors working in the community lack formal training or certification. And, of course, they are unsupervised. "The trouble is that along with those who have good intuition, there are others in our community who are types of babas (wonder workers) or kabbalists. Their advice isn't worth anything," says an ultra-Orthodox therapist with an academic degree. For the most part, these counselors are people whose status in the community - as rabbi, educator or matchmaker - along with a natural talent in human relations have prompted those to seek their advice.

A., a graduate of the institute, relates that as a rabbi's wife, she began to give occasional advice to people who came to consult with her husband. Then word spread about her, and more and more people came to solicit her advice. She gives advice and counsels brides voluntarily, but over the years developed an interest in interpersonal relationships and expanded her knowledge of the subject. Like her, some of the participants apparently decided to attend the institute, following years of being involved in the field and attending several courses, in order to receive certification. A. is now wrestling with the question of whether to take payment for her advice, which in the past she saw as an act of compassion.

The institute, with branches in Jerusalem and the center of the country and a counseling center in Haifa, is institutionalizing marriage counseling in ultra-Orthodox society by granting Education Ministry certification. The institute notes that the certificate is for marriage guidance, rather than counseling, since the latter requires a second degree. However, this distinction apparently has not yet reached the grassroots level.

Coaching new grooms

The two-year program is held separately for men and women. The students include rabbis and rabbis' wives, teachers, and others. Among the participants in a course on conjugal relations were a few social workers and those with a Masters degree in educational counseling - all of them women. As in all the new areas that are impacting ultra-Orthodox society, there is a large percentage of newly religious and ultra-Orthodox from Western countries among the marriage counselors.

Awareness of the need for professionalization has reached even the most closed circles. For example, Zvi Hoss, from the Belz Hasidic sect, was sent by his rabbi to study marriage guidance at the institute. He established an organization called Life of Happiness, which coaches young husbands. Some 60 counselors work with the newlywed grooms for a few years after their marriage.

At the same time, since the process has still not fully coalesced, the transition from the role of someone with community status to professional counselor remains problematic, and it's still legitimate for those in the field to engage in matchmaking at the same time. In one class, a student discussed her efforts of dealing with her feelings while advising a young woman who was hesitant about a certain match. "The desire is to get everyone under the bridal canopy," she said. "The girl was so miserable that I fought with the desire to make a match. And I had a motive for the other direction too, because there was a young man I wanted to have her meet. I wanted to push her forward." In this context, some troubling questions arise over the order of priorities among the ultra-Orthodox guides: Are they truly committed to the happiness of those who come to them, rather than to the norms of the society in which they live?

"Undoubtedly, subjects that spoke to them less in the past have now been opened up for dialogue," Cohen says. Today, he says, the thrust is to find solutions for distress rather than denying them. One reason for this is a change in the social roles of men and women in ultra-Orthodox society. "The main provider is, after all, a woman," Cohen says. "So the woman has far greater knowledge than in the past. And the role of men is also undergoing change." Today men take part in traditionally "feminine" tasks.

Cohen, a firebrand speaker who is known for trying to get secular Jews to become religious, has become an ultra-Orthodox guru in the area of communication in relationships. He has published books on the subject, and takes questions from listeners on one of the religious radio stations.

He has established an entire doctrine concerning what he terms "the mental differences between men and women," and likes to quote from John Gray's best-selling book "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus," which has become acceptable to the community over the past few years. Men are "maritally disabled," he says. They are not built for marriage, whereas the feminine psyche is more attuned to a life of partnership. "Who tends more to seek treatment?" Cohen asks, and replies: "Definitely women. Women suffer more intensely, and they also talk about it."

Dr. Yehuda Goodman, a sociologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who has studied ultra-Orthodox society, says it is the women in that community who create new forms of awareness. Awareness of "management of the psyche" began more than two decades ago, he says, when ultra-Orthodox women started to take an interest in parental guidance and the Adler Institute entered ultra-Orthodox areas. The choice of the Adler Institute was sensible, because it take a cognitive approach that emphasizes communication," Goodman says. "In other words, it's a therapeutic method that is less of a threat to central ultra-Orthodox values."

In a course on conjugal relationships for women, sexologist Rivka Klein lists possible problems with a husband's erection. Klein notes that during the first few lessons, direct talk about subjects such as orgasm, erection or premature ejaculation is extremely uncomfortable for the women, who asked her to use alternative terms. However, after discussing the matter, they decided to stay with the professional terminology.

Klein, who has a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University and teaches there, is well acquainted with ultra-Orthodox society and its sensitivity to language. Discussion about sexual problems is always charged and sensitive, she says, and at one of her clinics in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem - whose site is well hidden from the street - she chooses her words carefully. One can talk about conjugal relationships and not about sex, she notes, or about hardening instead of an erection. The word "masturbation" will not be spoken directly. It's not by chance that all the graduates of the marriage guidance course took a pledge of secrecy, and promised not to talk about the course's contents beyond the classroom. The innovative character of the course cannot be exaggerated.

Klein introduces the ultra-Orthodox women to new terms such as gender, identity and sexuality of men and women. In fact, discussing sex in a context other than the technique (or precept) with regard to having children is revolutionary. Klein says that now it is legitimate to talk about sexual pleasure in guidance for brides and grooms, because it is clear that a proper sex life is the foundation for a proper relationship. In the course, she talks about problems such as difficulties in intimacy, loss of attraction for the spouse, guilt feelings ("the connection between sex and sin," as she puts it), and a rigorous and suppressive education that is liable to cause problems in the enjoyment of sex later. (T.R.)