Mastering ABCs of Jewish marriage before saying I do

The walls of a Sunday school classroom at San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El are lined with Israeli flags and colorful children's posters of the Hebrew alphabet.

It's an appropriate backdrop for the five young couples gathered together for their regular Tuesday night session of "The Aleph-Bet of Marriage," a seven-week premarital course for Jewish couples.

They have gathered together to master the ABC's of marriage before they say "I do."

The group is co-led by social worker Lee Pollak (Rabbi Steven Kahn and Rabbi Helen Cohn, the other group leaders, are off tonight). "It's very useful before getting married," Pollak tells the group, "to pause and identify potential issues, since every couple has them."

For most in attendance, just planning the wedding has triggered more alarm bells than a kitchen grease fire.

One man has had it with his intrusive future mother-in-law. Another couple still wrangles over the "chuppah incident." (The bride felt the wedding budget didn't allow for both flowers and a chuppah, so the chuppah would have to go.)

A groom-to-be said of his fiancée, "The whole paying-for-the-wedding thing hasn't quite sunk in with her yet."

Pollak, who's been married for 43 years, has seen it all before.

She knows that marriage can turn into a raging ego battlefield if pre-emptive steps aren't taken, and she gives the group members enormous credit for making the effort to deal with problems before they start.

"They make a real commitment to be here," she says. "It's not easy. By opening up these issues, by turning over the pieces of the puzzle, people will know what their challenges are."

The other goal of the workshop is to help newlyweds lead Jewish lives. Four of the five couples on this night are interfaith. In two of those cases, one partner has converted to Judaism; in the other two, the partners chose not to convert. But all five nevertheless remain committed to establishing a Jewish home.

That's important to Rabbi Martin Weiner of San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel, one of the program's designers.

Four years ago, at a biennial convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Weiner heard UAHC President Eric Yoffie declare that premarital counseling should be a priority at all congregations.

Weiner, then-president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the Reform movement's rabbinical association), answered the call and helped spearhead the "Aleph-Bet" program. It is now offered to premarital couples, including same-sex and interfaith partners, at hundreds of congregations nationwide. In the Bay Area, the workshop is offered at various locations throughout the year.

"We established a national curriculum for a seven-week course, two hours per week," says Weiner. "The key is to address everything from financial planning to establishing a Jewish home, from ways to fight fair to dealing with personal intimacy issues. It's all there."

As one of the architects of the program's curriculum, Pollak worked under the aegis of the CCAR and the UAHC's department of Jewish family concerns and Pacific West Central council.

On this night, Pollak leads the group through an exercise, a series of revealing true-or-false questions called a "Love Map." Among the questions: "I can tell you my partner's basic philosophy of life"; "I know my partner's three favorite movies"; "I can tell you what stresses my partner is currently facing."

Some group members are pleasantly surprised when they discover their partners know the answers to the questions.

Others end up sharing with the group some traits they find most irritating about their partners. One doesn't like it when her fiancé uses every pot and pan in the house when cooking dinner. Another doesn't like it when her betrothed won't bother to ever wash a dish or empty the dishwasher.

Seems like small potatoes now, but these are the kinds of things that can turn into big fights later on, Pollak warns.

The program's Jewish content is equally important, according to Pollak.

"Establishing a Jewish home is the primary focus and rationale of having this program. The rabbis focus on that, but each session has some Jewish content. All these couples have asked a rabbi to perform their weddings, and all are making their start as a Jewish couple."

One of the program's fringe benefits is that couples remain friends after the workshop ends. Some form chavurot; many attend each other's weddings. Given the easy laughter among the group members on this night, it's clear these folks have bonded.

Says groom-to-be Steve Bamberger of San Francisco, "The best thing was hearing other people describe the things they do well and don't do so well. It's nice to know we fit into the spectrum of not-too-insane couples."

Adds his fiancée Jennifer Trice, a recent convert to Judaism: "I learned that we hadn't taken enough time to ask each other questions. I also realized I chose the right religion."

With the end of the workshop in sight, the couples will get on with their weddings, their marriages and their lives. But program coordinators hope the seeds of success have been planted.

Says Weiner: "There's so much focus on florists and photographers and planning for the wedding. What's forgotten is planning for the marriage."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.