A unique online course on marriage counseling for Yeshiva University-educated Orthodox rabbis has attracted 40 participants from across North America, Australia, and Israel. They include Benjamin Kelsen of Bergenfield’s Beis Medrash Zichron Shlomo Elimelech, Andrew Markowitz of Fair Lawn’s Congregation Shomrei Torah, and Chaim Poupko of Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah.
The course, offered by Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future and its affiliate, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Rabbinical Theological Seminary, aims to develop communal rabbis’ skills and techniques in assisting couples through every stage of relationship, from dating and marriage to crisis, divorce, or death.
The first of its kind, the yearlong series explores the rabbi’s role in various situations and considers how he can collaborate effectively with couples, their families, and mental health professionals in formulating and implementing a counseling plan.
“A lot of young couples are moving into Fair Lawn, and I wanted to gain the tools to become the best spiritual leader I can for my shul,” said Markowitz, 30, who also teaches at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus.
His congregation is paying half the fee for the course, even though counseling is not a formal part of Markowitz’s job description.
“This course teaches me to be more sensitive to the needs of my congregants, so that when someone asks a question, I can better understand the dynamics of the marriage and become closer to my congregants and more effective as a rabbi,” he said. “Together with my wife, I try to keep an open-door policy.”
When Markowitz was a rabbinical student at RIETS Manhattan campus, he took courses in pastoral psychology. He elected to further his knowledge at Israel’s Puah Institute, which deals with infertility issues in Jewish law, while he was at the university’s Jerusalem campus for two additional years. Last year, CJF teamed up with the Puah Institute for a yearlong online course on the issues surrounding infertility.
The current course, Markowitz said, is providing him with more in-depth information and new material as well. That includes a recent presentation by social worker Lisa Twerski, an expert on spousal abuse in the Jewish community.
Rabbi Levi Mostofsky, director of RIETS CJF Continuing Rabbinic Education and Support, said that many communal rabbis are interested in enhancing their rabbinic education, but lack the time and money to come to conferences. “This course provides a cost- and time-effective way for rabbis to update their skills in a way that will allow them to serve their constituents better,” he said.
“We have been supporting our rabbis in numerous ways for years, and there is consistent interest in nuanced instruction from trained professionals,” Mostofsky added. “With the launch of our program in October, rabbis have an open platform to discuss and learn about every aspect of the Jewish marital relationship in real-time from the top experts in the field.”
Before the first webinar, each participant received a thorough selection of reference materials, related articles, and assignments on the course topics. Altogether, the group will meet virtually for 17 lectures and discussions; it also will meet twice in person for more intensive all-day seminars in New York.
Between classes, participants interact with one another via the course’s dedicated online forum and schedule offline conversations with the instructors, who are leading mental health professionals and authorities in Jewish marital law.
“This course represents a true paradigm shift, both in the ways the topics will be presented and taught as well as the way in which the rabbis will be accessing the information,” CJF’s senior scholar, Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter of Teaneck, said. “In addition, by delving into important, but often ignored, topics – such as abuse, blended families, adoption, illness and death, homosexuality – participants will be well prepared to formulate new approaches to answer their congregants’ most challenging questions and help find real solutions for painful and distressing problems.”