The ad caught our eye: an all-expense paid Shabbatweekend at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute for couples married withinthe past 18 months. I had been to Brandeis before, so I knew that, ifnothing else, my husband, Neal, and I would experience a tranquilShabbat in a beautiful setting.
The weekend program was the brainchild of RabbiAlvin Mars, executive vice president of the institute, who identifiednewly married couples as a population for whom no programming existedwithin the Jewish community. Mars designed a program to enable thesecouples to meet others like themselves within a Jewish context, andhe obtained funding to hold three pilot sessions in 1997 through theCotsen Family Foundation. The weekends were so well-received that thefoundation agreed to fund five sessions annually over the next threeyears as the Cotsen Institute for Newly Married Couples.
The program’s goals are simple: to provide apositive experience within a Jewish framework and to give couples achance to meet and befriend other Jewish couples. The onlyrequirements are that couples be married within the past 18 months,and that the marriage be performed by a rabbi.
“That is the only program of its kind in the worldthat I am aware of,” says Mars. “This isn’t a case of couplesprojecting how things might be once they are married,” he says.Instead, participants examine their marriage as it currently exists,and explore how they want it to be.
Our weekend, held March 6-8, drew 32 couples, mostin their 20s and 30s, and a few in their 40s. There were severalsecond marriages, at least three expectant couples, and one with a6-month-old baby at home. Three couples trekked up from San Diego toparticipate.
When it comes to Shabbat, Brandeis-Bardin has amagical effect: Once you pass through the gates and drive downPeppertree Lane, you feel truly removed from the commotion and stressof everyday life. The 3,000 acres, exceptionally green after recentrains, offer beautiful vistas and lots of opportunities for hiking.The newly constructed meeting and dining complex, completed followingthe 1994 Northridge earthquake, only adds to the appeal.
Our formal program began with Shabbat services.According to Mars, BBI seeks to be “an entry for the entire Jewishpeople,” and staff are careful to present Judaism in a welcoming,non-threatening manner. The institute even has its own prayer bookand unique melodies so that observant and nonaffiliated Jews alikeare “equally uncomfortable.”
At dinner, which was surprisingly tasty, couplesbegan getting to know one another. As my husband observed,newly-marrieds are like a fraternity of sorts, and we gleefullyswapped details about when and where we had gotten married, where wehoneymooned and how we’d heard about this weekend.
Shabbat morning services were led by Rabbi ScottMeltzer, scholar-in-residence, who used the Torah portion’sdiscussion of the tabernacle to make an analogy to the new home eachcouple was establishing. My husband and I have made a commitment toincorporating Jewish practice and ritual in our home, and RabbiMeltzer’s comments made me feel good about the patterns we had begunto set.
The welcoming atmosphere and spectacular settingbegan to have its effect, as couples became more relaxed and lessinhibited. We found ourselves doing things we might not do in thereal world, such as singing songs arm-in-arm or trying Israelidancing for the first time. Even the fact that cabins were furnishedwith twin beds became an ongoing source of humor.
As the program continued, couples were invited togather in sets of three to share stories of how they met. Later,couples discussed privately their individual values and how theywished to translate those values as a new family unit.
Neal and I had taken a “Making Marriage Work”seminar before our wedding, so we had discussed many of the topicsraised over the course of the weekend. For some couples, however, thesessions provided an opportunity to cover new territory. But if Nealand I didn’t discover any earth-shattering revelations about ourrelationship, we nevertheless fulfilled the program’s goals: Wereaffirmed and clarified our feelings about building a Jewish homeand met some couples whom we plan to contact in the future. We alsogot to enjoy the clean air, take brisk walks and spend time focusingon one another.
“I hope every couple that gets married will take[the weekend] as a gift from the Jewish community,” says Meltzer.It’s a gift that any couple could appreciate.
The next weekend for newly married couples will beheld in the fall. For more information, call Rabbi Scott Meltzer atthe Brandeis-Bardin Institute at (805) 582-4450.