Shifra Revah, Shira Hershoff and Sara Tendler
Klal Perspectives, Symposium on Preparedness for Marriage
To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.
Observations of a Kallah Teacher
Entitlement. Immaturity. Irresponsibility. Selfishness. Anger. Negativity. Unrealistic expectations. Lack of boundaries. The list of ills that may plague a marriage is long and varied. Some challenges may prove fatal to the marriage, while others may be possible to resolve. In all instances, however, absent proper early intervention, the problems will fester, grow more threatening, and ultimately have serious consequences. One of the most important resources that should be available to a chosson and kallah is a strong connection to a teacher or mentor. Such individuals can be a natural address for guidance, and can often help resolve issues before they become major problems. Unfortunately, many young people do not have such connections in place.
Marriage is not a hospital. Pretending that marriage will cure whatever may trouble a young man or woman is asking for problems that can ruin not one, but two lives. Sometimes, unhealthy attitudes and behaviors are exposed during dating, something that parents and shadchanim should take very seriously. With proper guidance, these can usually be helped, but no one should get married if they have serious issues that are unresolved. Sadly, the young people themselves are often keenly aware that they are not ready for marriage, while their parents engage in wishful thinking.
Mentoring from an experienced person during dating and engagement can go a long way to preventing unsuitable marriages and allowing essentially positive relationships to flourish. They can also be helpful in beginning the process of establishing stable marriages.
Some relationship basics can and should be conveyed to young women in high schools and seminaries. Mrs. Zlata Press, principal of Bnos Leah Prospect Park, teaches a class on this topic called “Family Living.” Such courses could be very helpful in laying the foundations for healthy dating and marriages. However, the bulk of premarital education in our community does not take place until after a couple is engaged, and so chosson and kallah classes become the primary means of marriage education and guidance.
When people ask us why we spend so many hours with each kallah we teach, our answer is: “This is not your mother’s kallah class.” It’s not your mother’s kallah class because it’s not your mother’s world. The kallahs we are teaching live in a world that presents very different challenges from those faced even a generation ago. While five hours of instruction limited to halacha used to be standard, kallahs now spend hours devoted to everything from intimacy to infertility, and in-laws to Internet. Choosing the right teacher is an important “shidduch” that requires attention and effort. It is a parent’s responsibility to ensure that they choose a kallah teacher who is capable, open and well-suited to meeting their daughter’s needs.
In our experience, we have found one-on-one classes to be most effective, to ensure that the girl is as uninhibited as possible when questions and individual concerns arise. This has proven to be effective both in conveying the information, as well as in building a very important relationship between the kallah and her teacher. This relationship is critical as the young couple begins their life together, and faces challenges for which they could not possibly have been properly prepared before experiencing marriage for themselves. Much of the best advice a kallah teacher can give will only be appreciated long after the actual classes have ended.
If the kallah and her teacher have established a good rapport, the kallah might reach out when she needs help. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen. More than just offering to be available, kallah teachers should follow up their formal sessions with a phone call or two three to six months after the wedding. This call would serve as a friendly reminder that a caring, experienced and trustworthy adult is only a phone call away if needed. Kallahs themselves need to recognize (with helpful reminders from the adults in their lives) that seeking help at different points in a marriage is normal, and they should not wait until a problem area has grown so big that it requires dramatic intervention.
Some Chassidish communities already have ongoing communication between a kallah and her teacher as a communal norm. In that structured framework, it is easier to ensure that there is follow-up. For the rest of the greater frum community, the responsibility lies with individual teachers to stay connected and to be available when called. If we would normalize this commitment as a routine part of kallah classes, perhaps kallahs wouldn’t hesitate as much to reach out when something is troubling them. Ongoing mentoring can make a very positive difference in young and vulnerable marriages.
If kallah teachers are, in fact, to serve as the “first responders” to marital conflict, more kallah-teacher training and preparation should be required. First of all, kallah teachers need better access to Rabbanim who are familiar with today’s marital challenges and can guide them appropriately. They also need better access to mental health professionals. Kallah teachers should know how to identify serious issues, when to make referrals to competent marital counselors, psychologists and doctors, and how to access those professionals. For couples who enter therapy, kallah teachers need to be taught how to navigate their role in that context, including how to be a source of support without interfering with the counseling. Many therapists are very generous with their time and expertise, and can guide the kallah teacher in difficult situations and make appropriate referrals. It would be helpful to formalize this resource, creating a roster of professionals who are willing to donate their time to help those dealing with young couples.
It is especially important that kallahs have an address for intimacy-related issues. If she cannot go back to her kallah teacher, she is likely either to go to a library or search for information online. Which would we prefer? This is another area where further education for kallah teachers would be instrumental in helping young couples get the help they need.
The genie is out of the bottle. Young people are far more exposed than ever before and it is important that this fact be fully acknowledged. As exposure increases in our communities, it is necessary that education from healthy sources is increased and improved as well. Kallah teachers are in a key position to present a clear, positive and healthy Torah perspective on the physical relationship between husband and wife, with general guidance about the basics of sexuality and intimacy. However, this alone is not enough. It is a unique challenge to address intimacy in a comprehensive manner prior to marriage, when it’s very abstract. Guidance must be tailored to the emerging relationship between each individual couple in a manner that addresses their needs, something impossible to anticipate before they are married. Once the kallah is married and encounters specific questions or concerns, she needs someone knowledgeable, experienced, and caring to talk to.
In July 2001, Mrs. Debbie Fox of Aleinu in Los Angeles organized a three-day conference for kallah teachers. The conference was multi-faceted and brought together a panel of Rabbanim, therapists and chosson and kallah teachers to discuss many aspects of marital preparation. It enabled attendees to ask questions directly to the Rabbanim and other experts assembled. The conference featured mostly home grown talent – making a conference like this doable, and providing vital communal support for kallah teachers, and thus benefitting the entire community.
In another important event, the Rabbinical Council of California sponsored a seminar in Los Angeles with experts from Puah – an organization that deals with the myriad of issues related to infertility from a halachic perspective. Presenters discussed a number of issues, and included a fertility specialist who offered her perspective on the fertility challenges faced by women who get married later in life.
Communities must prioritize and allocate resources to train those who are already involved in premarital and marital education to expand their role in pre- and postmarital education and support. We have a system in place. Let’s make it better.