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Coming Apart, Pulling Together

The couples who attend Hitkashroot have a serious problem: one spouse is religious and one is not. Through a course of seminars — and lots of work at home — these couples learn how to accommodate, communicate, and even thrive

 

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Photos: Ezra Trabelsi

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he seminar room at Hitkashroot, on the small moshav of Gimzo in central Israel, looks something like a large concrete tepee: a large cone supported on all sides by thick wooden beams. It’s as if the architect wanted to create headspace.

It is here that ten couples come together to air their grievances against their spouses. This one plays with her phone on Shabbos. This one isn’t providing the proper chinuch for her kids. This one is taking on too many chumras. And this one just couldn’t care less.

The couples cut across the socio-economic strata and represent the gamut of Israeli religious life. There are men in the room wearing black velvet kippahs and there are women in the room wearing jeans and tall black boots. Oddly enough, the guy wearing the black kippah is married to the woman wearing the jeans and the boots, the odd pairing that is the reason for Hitkashroot’s existence.

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ack in 1992, Ami Baram decided to take a trip to India. It almost wasn’t a decision, explains Baram, since it’s more like a rite of passage for Israelis who have completed their army service. He was away for three years in total and explored all the spiritual delicacies that India has to offer. He spent time on an ashram, delved deep into meditation, became a practitioner of yoga. After side trips to the United States and South America, he returned home only to discover that there were no ashrams or gurus. India’s wide spaces, wild nature, and freedom to explore were replaced with the cramped streets of Tel Aviv. India had opened his mind, but now it felt like it was shutting tight.

Around this time, he met his wife Avital, who had grown up in a traditional family. Her family made Kiddush on Friday night, and she fasted on Yom Kippur, but she in no way considered herself religious. Spiritual yes, religious not. Just like her soon-to-be-husband, Ami.

Even after they were happily married, Ami couldn’t shake the spiritual bug, so he started showing up at shul. He was yeshivish for a while, and then dabbled in Breslov chassidus. Meanwhile, his wife was eyeing him warily. What’s happened to my husband? Most irksome was that he was out the door early on Shabbos mornings, when she looked forward to spending time together. Sensitive to her concerns, Ami tried a shul with a later start time the following Shabbos, the local Chabad, and in the process found his spiritual home.

The way Avital describes it, Ami transformed “very quickly” from army-guy-on-a-spiritual-trek to Lubavitcher Chassid, but she was still Avital from Rishon L’Tzion. She respected religion, even considered herself more religious than most of her friends, but wasn’t ready for a full-blown religious life.

“When Ami became religious and he went all the way, it was very difficult,” she says, sitting at their neat kitchen table in Gimzo, just a few minutes from the Hitkashroot seminar room. “We had a lot of disagreement about what the house would look like and what level of religiosity I could swallow. I wasn’t against it on a basic level — but I didn’t want to become a religious person. I wasn’t interested in that.”

In the meantime, they had their first child, and then a second. Ami’s beard grew longer, his suits darker, and pretty soon they were in what can only be described as a mixed marriage.

And then the questions came up. How do we spend Shabbos day? What if Avital wants to get in the car and visit her family? How kosher is kosher? And are you sure you don’t want to send little Yossi to cheder?

Avital was clear about her red lines. “I did some of the things that were needed for the home, but I dressed as freely as I wanted,” she says. “I was clear with what I wouldn’t do.”

She was also clear that she wanted to remain married to Ami, despite their differences. “We found our way slowly,” she says today, wearing a sheitel, long skirt, and sweater.

Ironically, it was only after Ami stopped pressuring his wife to take on greater observance that she found an opening to Yiddishkeit. As she describes it, if someone she loved so much had found beauty in Jewish practice, maybe there was something to it after all.

“When the relationship is good, everything can happen from there,” explains Ami, who trained as a marriage counselor. “But when the relationship is not good, and you want to be makpid on [your spouse] — for instance you don’t like the way she dresses — she will never hear you and never be religious.”

And, like new parents who see other parents with strollers everywhere, Avital and Ami began noticing they weren’t the only ones in their particular predicament.

One meeting at their house turned into a workshop, which, by word of mouth, turned into a series of workshops. Today, 15 years later, hundreds of couples have passed through their doors. Some of them began their married lives the way Ami and Avital did while others threw caution to the wind and got married despite their religious differences. Still others are in relationships where one spouse from a religious couple has left behind Yiddishkeit but not his family.

Most often, it is the husband who will find HaKadosh Baruch Hu and the wife who will feel as though she is now married to an “other,” someone whom in the past she only observed from afar. And baalei teshuvah being baalei teshuvah, the spouse might not always express his newfound love for Yiddishkeit in the most reasonable way.

“Sometimes when people are chozrim b’tshuvah, they have a lot of passion, and they don’t see exactly how to put it into the right words,” Avital explains gently. “So we went on our path and realized that we’re not alone, that there are many more couples like us and many more families in Israel facing this problem.”

In the workshop, which extends over 16 sessions, couples primarily learn how to communicate and accommodate. But there are also practical sessions on issues like child raising, Shabbos observance, kashrus, and dealing with extended family dynamics. There are also meetings with a rabbinical advisor, Chabad posek Rabbi Yehuda Leib Nachmanson, and, after the workshop ends, the couples, who have formed a support group, continue to meet once a month for empathy and encouragement.

Rabbi Shalom Arush, the popular author,  speaker, and head of the Chut Shel Chesed Institutions, has enthusiastically endorsed the group. A number of leading rabbanim, including Rabbi Chaim Shlomo Diskin, chief rabbi of Kiryat Ata, and Rabbi Menachem Glukovsky, head of the Chabad Rabbinical Court in Israel, have spoken at Hitkashroot seminars.

 

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bserving the conversation in the workshop room, it soon becomes clear that the challenges facing these couples are present in most marriages: establishing respectful communication, working toward shared goals, modeling good behavior for children. But for these couples, the issues are supercharged. In a sense, these are two people in two different worlds bound together by matrimony. In addition to all the normal tensions and challenges of marriage, there is also the simple fact that this man and wife have wildly different worldviews.

While many couples in this situation choose to divorce, these couples have decided to try to make their marriages work. The reasons vary. Sometimes both partners feel a duty to their children that goes beyond their own happiness. Other times a partner may still feel drawn to his spouse, despite their very real religious differences. More to the point, couples come to Hitkashroot to learn to live with one another within halachic boundaries. She may not be religious enough for him, and he is way too religious for her, but with rabbinic guidance and a lot of flexibility, these couples pursue a middle ground, a way to preserve the marriage under the new circumstances.

During one of the workshops, a psychologist named Hila led the group in a discussion about the best ways to spare kids the conflict that is at the heart of these marriages. One couple — he in a knitted blue and white kippah and she in a black sweater, black pants, and a purple scarf wrapped loosely around her neck — soon began tussling about whether their young daughter actually enjoyed keeping Shabbos. The husband, who looked like he could be a tech executive, insisted that she looked forward to the day all week. The wife, rolling her eyes, recounted how her daughter asks for her phone when the husband isn’t looking.

Hila draws out an important lesson from the conversation: A child shouldn’t be forced to take sides and certainly shouldn’t be used as a pawn in a marital power play. She tells the couples that they must establish boundaries and enforce rules, especially on Shabbos. While one spouse might want to engage in activities that are forbidden, it is confusing to the child, damaging even, to be pulled in two directions at once. Hila also has a message for the religious spouses in the room: If you want your kids to keep Shabbos as adults, don’t make the day a war zone when they’re young.

“Our workshop is about giving tools to the family, to learn how to live together and to work through their conflict,” says Avital, who trained as a social worker. “The couples are very worried about ruining their kids [as a result of the mixed messages they receive at home] but sometimes ignore the fact that kids actually need good, stable parents who communicate well and can build a healthy environment.” In other words, creating a loving and supportive home is more important than proving who’s right. Respect and acceptance of one’s imperfect spouse is the first step toward raising healthy children. But if the parents handle their differences the wrong way, she says, they can cause their children so much pain, anger, and disappointment that their children “don’t even want to hear about religion later in life.”

The goal is to take this conflict at the heart of the marriage and build a stronger union, to use it as a stepping stone toward greater openness and acceptance. She has found that families who accomplish that tall feat produce strong, healthy kids, despite the predicament.

“Those kids are beautiful and talk about it [their unusual family dynamic] freely. They love the parents and the parents love each other, and the kids learn how to treat others with respect even where there are fundamental differences.”

Back in the seminar room, there is laughter and some yelling and moments of awkward silence. This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. Miri married Kobi, not Yanky. Shmuel once learned in kollel in Bnei Brak, and now Esther has to beg him to say Kiddush on Friday night before he drives off to meet his friends in the city.

And you wonder, are these couples still devoted to one another? Or are they just making the best of a bad situation? Why even stay with someone who doesn’t share your most valued ideals? Avital hesitates before answering. “First of all, a lot of them were married for many years and share a lot in common. And we have found that if the couple has a good relationship, they are better equipped to move forward and close the gaps between them.”

In the middle of all this hullaballoo sits Hila, the therapist. She’s wearing a black turtleneck sweater and pants, her dark hair pulled back in a pony tail. She handles the boisterous crowd with skill and confidence, at several points redirecting the conversation after a quarreling couple corners the attention. Ami, who is sitting in the back of the room casually observing the proceedings, leans over and provides a bit of useful information: Hila was once a participant in the workshop, about ten years ago. Her husband is chareidi, as are her kids. “You should talk to her,” he says.

 

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ila and Tomer’s home, in the small community of Even Yehuda outside Netanya, is spare and tidy, in the Israeli style. Small trays of cookies and nuts are laid out on the kitchen table, and the kettle is boiling water. Tomer is tall and thin, with a wispy beard and playful eyes. His white shirt is crisp and clean, his black pants and suit pressed. He moves with a spring in his step, and there’s a singsong in his voice.

He’s an actor, the director of a theater company called Teatron Hama’ayan that performs in schools across the country. “I teach Jewish tradition, Jewish customs to people who aren’t religious,” says Tomer, who has now sat down at the table beside his wife, Hila. “I work in schools and try to — how do you say in English? — strengthen the Jewish feeling.”

Like Ami and Avital, a sojourn in India played a key role in their religious journeys. Hila and Tomer first met when they were teenagers, in a youth program in high school before the army. After completing their army service, earning their academic degrees (his in acting and hers in psychology), and getting married, they decided to travel to the subcontinent.

And, just like Ami and Avital, they sampled the meditation and the yoga retreats and enjoyed the total freedom of being thousands of miles away from home and free of commitment. As an open-minded couple, they wanted to take in everything India had to offer, so one day, they walked into the Chabad house in Pushkar, in the northeastern state of Rajasthan.

“If you’re going to travel somewhere, you want to try all the dishes,” Tomer explains. “I tried the Indian restaurant, I tried the Tibetan restaurant, so we decided to see what was going on in the Jewish restaurant.”

During their two weeks there, “the bells for Tomer started to ring,” says Hila. And for her? “It was very interesting, but nothing more than that.” On Yom Kippur that year, Tomer fasted for the first time, joining his wife, who had grown up fasting on the holy day but not much else.

When they returned to Israel, Tomer started to make blessings before eating and reciting the bedtime Shema. Hila thought it would be a passing phase, just one more spiritual indulgence for Tomer. “I hoped and prayed that it would blow over, but it didn’t. It just got stronger,” she says.

In short order, Hila, the daughter of secular parents from Iraq and Iran who grew up near Tel Aviv, was married to Tomer, the Chabad Jew with a black hat and gartel who had grown up totally unaffiliated near Netanya.

When Tomer started to wash his hands several times a day, Hila suspected that he was developing an obsessive-compulsive disorder. They decided to go to a couple’s therapist.

“The therapist was excellent, but she couldn’t see my side because she was secular,” Tomer says. “She looked at Hila, and she looked at me, and she gave her diagnosis: The husband has gone crazy. So then we went to a rabbi, and he looked at Hila, and he looked at me, and he said: She’s the problem.”

Hila was initially shocked by the change in her husband. She had dreamed of visiting her family and taking her kids to the beach on Shabbos, just as she had done growing up. Now she had to clean the house on Fridays and prepare large Shabbos meals, not to mention educate herself about taharas hamishpachah and kashrus.

In the beginning, Hila felt betrayed. “He chose G-d,” she felt, and not her. But Hila also felt committed to the man she had known for so long and had chosen to marry. Yes, she considered divorcing Tomer more than once, but ultimately decided to remain in the relationship. And if that meant taking on halachic obligations and sending the kids to religious schools, so be it.

They discovered Hitkashroot, and went through the program. It helped, but the awkwardness of their pairing was sometimes a source of embarrassment.

One Shabbos, when visiting Hila’s parents, Tomer suffered a bad cut. He had to rush to the hospital, so he first visited a local rav to find out how to deal with various Shabbos restrictions. For Hila, it was Saturday — a beach day — and she was dressed for the occasion. Once at the hospital, they began to feel the eyes of the waiting room on them. Who are these people? What is their relationship? Finally, a curious nurse walked over to ask.

“She said, ‘Obviously you are not married because you don’t dress alike,’ ” Hila relates.

“This nurse understood I was the patient,” Tomer says, “but couldn’t understand who this strange woman was beside me. When I told her she was my wife, she said ‘What?!’ ”

Over the years, they’ve learned how to go their own way at the same time. When they traveled to the United States to visit the ohel of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, they divided up the week: Tomer got Shabbos and Yom Tov, and Hila got the weekdays for sightseeing. On a recent trip to the Golan, after a long, exhausting day that ended with four hungry kids, Tomer joined his family in a restaurant with a hashgachah that was mehadrin — albeit less to his liking. Their one daughter and three sons all go to a Chabad school, leaving Hila the lone non-religious member of the household.

Sometimes, Tomer tries to imagine what it would be like if the shoe were on the other foot — if Hila had come back from India religious and Tomer was left with a different wife. “I’m not sure I’d be able to cope,” he says. “I know it’s tough.”

But he was clear from the beginning — with himself and G-d — that he would not leave Hila’s side. “I told Him, listen, I want You but I’m not ready to give up on her. And I think He agreed.”

 

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ost of the couples who arrive at Hitkashroot are like Tomer and Hila and Ami and Avital — a baal teshuvah husband married to a secular spouse. But occasionally, a different kind of couple arrives. In about ten percent of the cases, according to Ami and Avital, a formerly religious couple where one of the partners has decided to leave the fold seeks their support and counseling.

Yossi* grew up in Bnei Brak, the oldest of 12 kids. His father learned in yeshivah, and his mother was a homemaker. He attended yeshivah and then started learning in kollel in a large Jewish community. Along the way, he met Sarah*, the daughter of baal teshuvah American parents, who grew up in a small, sheltered community in the north.

They were a happy, close couple, Sarah working in the tech world to support their growing family while Yossi learned in kollel. But then, over a number of years, Yossi began to lose touch with his Yiddishkeit. Old questions resurfaced, and he increasingly felt his white shirt and black suit no longer fit him. Worse, he was lying to his wife and pretending to be a chareidi dad to his children. At that point, Sarah and Yossi had been married eight years.

“This was a process. It took place over several years,” says Yossi, sitting at his dining room table in Beit Shemesh. He has big, expressive eyes and is wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants. “I didn’t tell my wife because it was just too difficult to share the news with her.”

Sarah says she knew something was amiss. At first, he would come home from kollel, walk into their bedroom, close the door, and watch a movie on his computer. Later, he would return home in the wee hours of the night, preferring to stay out with friends.

They agreed to see a couple’s therapist, but even there, Yossi couldn’t admit to his true feelings. Eventually, the therapist spoke for him, and all the little pieces fell into place.

“He’s a very protective husband and father, and he couldn’t bring himself to hurt me,” Sarah says now, in retrospect. “He hates talking about his feelings.”

At first, Sarah couldn’t accept it. She felt as if someone had died and went through the stages of mourning. “I really didn’t know what to do,” she says. “I didn’t know if we were allowed to stay together. I didn’t know if that’s what I was supposed to do. It was a very lonely time for him, but it was a very lonely time for me, too. Nobody taught me what to do when your husband decides to leave Yiddishkeit.”

She sought out rabbinic advice, but didn’t find a helpful address. Then a friend suggested that she see a gadol, someone with a reputation for broad thinking.

“I walked into his room and told him that my husband doesn’t keep mitzvos anymore,” she says. “I asked if I can stay with him. And he asked: ‘Do you have children?’ And I said ‘Yes, four.’ He had a big smile on his face and said, ‘Why are you only telling me the bad things? You should tell me the good things, too.’ ”

If your husband isn’t asking you to do aveiros, the gadol counseled, you can stay with him for the sake of the children. “Now I understand that it’s not only about religion, it’s also about kavod,” Sarah says. “If he respects me and doesn’t make me do things I don’t want to do, then we can stay together.” She left the meeting with the rav feeling relieved —at least she wouldn’t have to get divorced — but now what?

The children, two girls and two boys, attend Bais Yaakov and Talmud Torah. Yossi was still dressing like a religious Jew, but the children were suspicious. Does Abba still go to shul? He seems different now.

So Yossi sat them down one by one and explained the situation. There was no crying — just acceptance. Like precocious children everywhere, they had suspected something was up. “And then we told both schools, and the principles were very understanding,” Sarah explains. “I told them that I don’t want my kids to miss out even though my husband has changed. The principal of the girls’ school told me, ‘If any of the girls laugh at your girls, let me know, and I’ll take care of it.’ ”

Today, they are in a state of equilibrium. Yossi is training for a new profession, and Sarah continues to work. She wears her sheitel when they go out together, and not her usual tichel, so they won’t stand out. On Shabbos, Yossi leaves after the morning meal and doesn’t come home until after nightfall. When the children have a question about halachah, he answers them, with the authority of all his years of yeshivah learning.

At a certain point, Sarah had to decide: Do I stay angry at my husband for the rest of my life or do I accept him and move on? “I said, ‘Okay, either deal with it, or keep crying and be miserable,’ ” she says. “And I decided, ‘He didn’t do this to me. Stop whining and saying “Someone took my amazing husband away.” Try meeting a new person. Your husband died.’ ”

A week after our meeting, Sarah sends a follow-up e-mail message. Even after meeting with the gadol, she writes, she had her moments of doubt. Maybe it really would be better to divorce and start over again. What kind of message am I sending to my kids when they see me with a non-religious man?

“But today, I am more and more confident that it was the right decision for us,” she writes. “I know families where the parents got divorced, and now one of the parents is not religious, and it’s so much more confusing for the children.” One parent pulls this way, while the other parent pulls that way, and the child is stretched in between.

It’s also true that Sarah sees a certain advantage in staying married to Yossi. If they were divorced, he might have the space and opportunity to influence the children in ways she would consider anathema. With him in the house, and with his agreement on certain issues, she can keep a close eye on him. So far, he has respected her wishes and has never sought to pull the children away from their Yiddishkeit.

And besides, she says, she still cares for Yossi. He’s not the man she married, but through a lot of hard work together, they’ve discovered new paths for connection.

“Slowly we learned to make small changes, and we got back to doing things we like — laughing together, taking a walk, finding new things that make us happy,” she says. It’s not a perfect situation, she admits, but they’ve learned to respect each other’s boundaries and put the good of the children before all else. “Today, I sometimes forget that he is not the same man I married,” she admits. “It is all so natural to me. We are back to being a loving, close, and happy couple. Maybe even better.”

 


No Compromise on Halachah

We asked the Hitkashroot rabbinic board to provide us with insight into the halachos of living in a “mixed marriage.” Mishpacha’s rabbinic board added a few details, seen seen in brackets.

  1. Based on the halachah, how can a person rely on his or her spouse who does not keep kosher or maintain a religious family environment?

The couples come to us in deep conflict. What make us successful is that we shift the emphasis from the religious topic back to the trust in the personal relationship. Once that’s accomplished, the religious conflict can be resolved.

With regard to baalei teshuvah, they meet with Rav Nachmanson throughout the course, and 90 percent of those who complete the course end up accepting the halachic decisions of the rav. The couple determines the degree of kashrus they can maintain, without compromising on the basic standards. In the case of those who are leaving the fold, the knowledge is already there. He or she will commit to maintain the level of kashrus they currently observe, and the religious spouse will handle his or her higher standard on his or her own.

[It should be noted that Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that at times a baal teshuvah child can trust his parents who are not personally observant (Igros Moshe YD I §54). Although they are not believed under the category of "eid echad ne’eman b’issurin” since they do not keep kosher, if one knows from extensive experience that a close family member absolutely would never lie to you, he or she can be trusted (under pressing circumstances, assuming, of course, that they know the relevant laws). This is due to the principle of "kim leih b’gaveih” (Kesubos 85a). It should be stressed that this principle applies to a spouse or close family member only (Igros Moshe YD II §43).]

  1. Do such mixed marriages show the children that Yiddishkeit is subjective? In other words, in this kind of relationship, is there an approach of “What’s right for me isn’t right for you?” Is that, in turn, a statement that there is no objective truth? How does this situation impact the chinuch of the children?

What’s true is true, and there’s no such thing as compromise. But the way these truths are expressed in such cases is naturally different from the way they would be conveyed in a normal home. The frum parent has to demonstrate his commitment in a confident and positive manner and lead by example.

  1. Does it always make sense for a couple like this to stay together even when children are not a factor?

As long as we see a reasonable possibility for the peaceable continuation of the marriage, we support that.

  1. What kind of compromises can be made, according to halachah, on the subject of chinuch?

We never compromise on halachah under any circumstances.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 765)

* Names and identifying details have been changed upon request.

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