A rabbinic lesson in marriage counseling

All too often, religious and societal taboos impede honest dialogue about difficult issues that can affect any marriage, such as spousal abuse, blended families, adoption and infidelity.

Learning how to deal with those situations is one reason why Associate Rabbi Adir Posy of Beth Jacob Congregation, a Modern Orthodox shul in Beverly Hills, decided to participate in the pilot Rabbinic Marriage Counseling course at Yeshiva University in New York City.

“The program created a safe place for important issues like abuse and sexuality to be discussed and addressed,” Posy said. “Too often, these issues are not part of our day-to-day communal conversation, and it may lead to more problems. A course like this gives me the tools to have a sensitive and appropriate way in which to address these things in my community.”

The program, which began in October and runs through April 15, combines online interactions and lectures, required reading and two in-person seminars in New York. Taught by a team of rabbis, doctors and mental health professionals, the program covers topics from dating to divorce to the death of a child, and every difficult-to-broach topic in between.

“The issues are so wide-ranging: sexuality, abuse, and even meta-issues, like, ‘What does counseling look like for a rabbi? When do you refer to a therapist? What’s your role as a rabbi after referral?’” said Rabbi Levi Mostofsky, director of continuing education at the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University.

Rabbi Benjamin Resnick, a Jewish Studies teacher at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills who also holds a master’s degree in social work, said it helps participating rabbis like himself understand their role in the dynamics of someone else’s relationship.

“Anecdotally speaking, I dealt with a few difficult cases, each involving divorce situations gone wrong. Despite my degree in social work, there were times when a party insisted on an ultimatum — which makes it hard to negotiate and hard to empathize with appropriately — especially when you’re tempted to take sides,” Resnick said. “It’s important to be able to negotiate, to help someone process their feelings and, especially, to know when you’re out of your depth and need to give a referral to someone who has more extensive training and experience.”

Not only does the course combine Jewish Studies with advancements in psychological and counseling knowledge, but the very essence of how this program is taught utilizes a marriage of technology with traditional teaching tools.

The 40 participants — who come from North America, Australia and Israel — telecommute to 17 online lectures. They also have two books, as well as many additional articles that they read as part of their curriculum.

The classroom interaction is done via Web seminars and live discussions to create an interactive classroom. For those who can’t participate live, they can watch the lecture later online and submit any questions they have via e-mail or an online community. Everyone convenes twice at Yeshiva University for two daylong seminars.

For Resnick and Posy, it’s a great system.

“It’s much more convenient for out-of-towners like me,” Resnick said. “I have been able to attend a few sessions ‘live,’ but I’m often teaching at that time, so I watch the class at a more convenient time — certainly more convenient than flying to New York once a week.”

Posy agreed: “For someone of my learning style, this format was perfect.”

He said his congregation has been supportive of his efforts at professional development.

“From my perspective, I never see myself as a finished product when it comes to my development as a rabbi. There is always more to learn and always a new prism through which my work can be viewed,” Posy said.

Although seminaries like Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and American Jewish University (AJU) have their own pastoral counseling programs, the curriculums there focus more on theory than does the Yeshiva University course.

According to Rabbi Dvora Weisberg, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, “The course is intended to teach basic principles and theories, so students can provide appropriate support for people going through difficult times, preparing for life cycle events, and so they can be sensitive to the ways that people react to stressful situations.”

The course includes guest lectures by mental health professionals as well as some role-playing and opportunities for students to discuss issues they come across during their fieldwork.

At AJU, the pastoral counseling course is a yearlong class taught by a Conservative rabbi who is a practicing psychotherapist, said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

“The focus is on elevating the humanity of each person and being there to help them through the challenges life throws their way,” said Artson.

One of the largest differences that sets the Yeshiva University course apart is that the student body tends to have been in the rabbinical field for a number of years. Roughly half of its lectures come from rabbis, while the other half come from clinical psychologists, medical doctors, clinical social workers and working mental health professionals from a variety of specializations.

On one of the first lecture days, for example, the director of the department of gynecology at Montefiore Medical Center who is also a certified sexuality counselor teamed up with a rabbi from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary to address the effects of pornography on intimacy, among other topics. The class goals included how rabbis should use Jewish teachings to address issues in a spiritual and realistic way.

“The synthesis of the medical and psychological knowledge that is merged with the halachic [Jewish law] details that influence the Jewish views on marriage is really what sticks with me from this course,” said Posy. “It gave me a new appreciation of how all of these things — the medical, the Jewish and the psychological — work together to provide a holistic view of what a marriage is, and [what it] can be.”