Yitz and Shevy were angry and frustrated. Yitz inspired by his new kollel decided it was time for him and his wife to raise their religious level. He wanted Shevy to shorten her wig and lengthen her skirts. He insisted that they eat only kemach yashan. Then he announced that they had to transfer their young son to a more right-wing cheder.
Shevy for her part was seething. “Out of the blue he starts imposing a zillion new chumras on me!” she railed. “This isn’t what I signed up for when I got married.” In turn Yitz was upset that Shevy wasn’t automatically seconding his proposals. After all isn’t a wife supposed to follow her husband’s direction?
Nachum and Suri were having problems of their own. Suri determined to be the best balabusta kollel wife and mother was a perpetual motion machine. She rose early to make sandwiches and prepare the children for school; at night she helped her kids with homework loaded the washing machine made sure to leave the kitchen spotless and caught up on work assignments. But Nachum instead of appreciating her hard work was spending less and less time at home. “It’s not fair. I do everything around here and instead of helping he disappears!” she fumed. But Nachum had complaints of his own. “Why should I hang around the house?” he asked. “Suri doesn’t pay any attention to me and when she does it’s always to kvetch about something or yell at me.”
Can these marriages be healed? Yes says Reuven Epstein a 32-year-old accountant from Flatbush who is fast becoming a marriage guru for young couples. “People don’t get enough training for marriage ” he maintains. “A month’s worth of chassan or kallah classes teach the basic halachos but they don’t teach people how to handle their marriages when they hit a bump.”
If you want to become an accountant he says you get a degree in accounting. If you want to be a doctor you have to spend a few years in medical school. Why not study for marriage? “Marriage is an even more important undertaking than choosing a parnassah ” he says “and has many more long-term consequences. Shouldn’t people get training for marriage as well?”
That’s precisely what he has set out to do. After training in Eretz Yisrael with a rav known as an expert in shalom bayis issues Reuven came home and began advising couples. Then he translated his rav’s teachings into a clear organized system of 24 classes he calls “Marriage Pro.” He put them online and made them accessible to everyone (some for free and others for a fee that helps defray the costs of the project). Having offered this program to the community he’s now expanding his teachings to dating as well.
“I felt like I had the recipe based on Torah and ma’amarei Chazal. People who followed it succeeded in their marriages. The question became how could I put it into a format that people can easily understand and digest?”
Epstein a tall dynamic young husband and father wears two hats: during the day he’s an accountant at Ben Epstein and Associates a firm in Brooklyn. At night and on Sundays he puts out his marriage advisor sign counseling couples from Brooklyn to Staten Island and beyond.
He has all the traits that characterize a good accountant: perspicacious analytical methodical. But while CPAs are often stereotyped as staid he’s intense and cause-driven although quick to lighten up with a boyish smile and sense of humor. When we meet him in his office he looks fresh and energetic despite having recently returned from a Shabbaton where he delivered a lecture on marriage and answered questions from couples until four in the morning.
Reuven grew up in Flatbush as a Torah Temimah talmid then learned at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Before leaving to return to the US he received a brachah from Rav Don Segal who told him “You’re going to get married quickly.”
With that in mind he didn’t immediately sign himself into the BMG “freezer.” He stayed in Brooklyn learning in Beis Yosef Novardok which permitted dating. As the rav had predicted it was quick — on every level. “I got engaged to the third girl I met on our third date ” he says. While this may not be the right path for everyone in his case he says “I just knew.”
The newlyweds returned to Eretz Yisrael the following January where Reuven went back to the Mir. By Pesach he’d transferred to the Jerusalem Kollel of Rav Yitzchok Berkovits where he’d spend the next four and a half years in the semichah program.
“Rabbi Berkovits really wants to produce rabbis who will go into kiruv and he told me that ” Reuven says. “At the time I said ‘But my plans are to go into accounting like my father. If kiruv is such a valuable path I’m willing to listen but you’ll have to convince me.’”
Rabbi Berkovits prevailed and Reuven signed on. Upon finishing the program he immediately received offers for kiruv positions. To his surprise however instead of pushing him to accept them Rabbi Berkovits told him “First get yourself a base in parnassah and do kiruv on the side.” Today Reuven acknowledges the wisdom of the rosh kollel’s approach: By training him for a life of kiruv he prompted Reuven to approach his learning with the seriousness of someone who expects to teach Torah full time.
It was shortly after beginning at the Jerusalem Kollel that Reuven approached his rav Rabbi Y. a talmid of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel ztz”l and a maggid shiur in the Mir Yeshiva who was known for his wisdom about shalom bayis. Reuven hoping to maximize his own marriage asked if Rabbi Y. could learn with him.
“Well I give a weekly shiur ” Rabbi Y. responded.
But that wasn’t what Reuven wanted and he knows how to be persistent. “That’s not enough for me ” he said. “I want to learn with you one on one.”
Rabbi Y. agreed but under tough conditions. They had to learn whenever the rabbi was available be it six a.m. or two a.m. And there would be no set length to their sessions which could range from ten minutes to five hours.
Thus began over four years of study under Rabbi Y. during which the rav eventually encouraged Reuven to begin teaching what he’d learned under his guidance. “That sort of shimush was so important ” Reuven says. “For example if a lady came to me crying I learned not to jump in to give her eitzos. I learned that first she just needed me to listen.”
Now when a couple like Yitz and Shevy come to him he begins by explaining the basic goal of marriage: to create a kesher a connection between the spouses. Then he starts talking about the principles behind a healthy marriage and generally finds that couples will pipe up when he touches a sore spot. That helps him identify the root of the problem and work toward a solution.
For example, Yitz’s problem is that he failed to stay connected to his wife as he made strides in observance. Instead, he tried to simply impose his chumras on Shevy. “Marriage is about two people moving through life side by side,” Reuven says. “If Yitz moves ahead on his own, even if he’s moving in a good direction, he’s stepping away from his wife. His mistake was not bringing her on board. He should have been coming home when he heard an inspiring shiur and sharing it with Shevy. Then the chumras would be a shared decision, not a unilateral proclamation.”
Nachum and Suri also failed to maintain their kesher. Suri was so driven to excel in her duties that she forgot that her most important duty is to maintain a strong connection with her husband. Nachum, feeling superfluous and ignored, reacted by finding other people and activities to connect to. If each would take some time away from their other pursuits and focus on each other, the rest would fall into place. “When people kvetch, the underlying problem is almost always a lack of kesher,” Reuven says. “But you can’t just acknowledge that; you have to turn the theory into practice. You have to be ready to change. Often even a millimeter of change can produce big changes in a relationship.”
If today we think there’s a shidduch crisis, Reuven says, there’s a marriage catastrophe. “For regular couples, shanah rishonah is often a roller coaster. We think everyone should be able to wing it, but that’s not how it works out.”
Why not? After all, earlier generations didn’t divorce nearly as much. “Sensitivities are different today,” he ventures. “The internet age moves so fast that five or ten years already creates a generation gap. People are very attuned and sophisticated about the latest fads in cell phones, gourmet food, clothing styles, and are bothered when they don’t have the latest and greatest.” Previous generations grew up with a single pizza store; today’s generation chooses between hearth-roasted thin-crust pizza, angel hair pasta, and sea bass.
“Young people are exposed to so much today, and it creates a lot of unhealthy behavior,” Reuven says. “Shmiras einayim isn’t just a man’s problem; there are many women nowadays spending hours on social media, getting drawn to certain lifestyles and priorities that aren’t compatible with frum values.” ($3,000 shoes, anyone?)
Reuven doesn’t only believe the rise in flash divorces is a result of young people having a transient, throwaway approach to relationships. “This generation understands what divorce is all about,” he maintains. “But often they see unhealthiness and can’t deal with it. Their parents’ generation worked hard to meet basic needs, and suppressed their desires to indulge. This generation takes material ease for granted, and is more emotionally sophisticated. But the good news is that they’re accustomed to the idea of going to therapy.”
On the other hand, all the psychology in the world won’t help if the therapist doesn’t understand the central tenets of marriage. One of Reuven’s clients came from a home where both parents were therapists, and knew every buzz word. Yet they fought viciously and belittled each other constantly.
Reuven believes that many divorces happen because people give up when they see emotional unhealthiness. There are those who come into marriage with a misguided concept of what it’s about, having never witnessed a normal marriage. Some come in with psychological or emotional problems, hoping marriage will resolve them. “Marriage is not a hospital,” Reuven emphasizes. “You cannot succeed if you’re both sick people, each one looking for the other to take care of him.”
Even in marriages that last, Reuven finds the most common problem is the lack of kesher. He explains that the word davek, or cling, is used only twice in the Torah: once to describe the relationship between man and Hashem, and once to describe how a man should cling to his wife and become one. Man tends to be disconnected in his natural state, and connecting to his wife ideally teaches him how to relate to Hashem. “That’s each partner’s job in a marriage — to become one, to connect, to give without expecting in return,” he says. “It’s hard work, but once you have that connection, all the rest — money issues, family issues, housework issues — become details that can be worked out between you.”
Of course, forming that kesher involves understanding what the other person needs, and those needs are different for men and women. Many people don’t even understand the basic roles of a husband and wife. When asked, “What’s your job in your marriage?” they tend to give answers like, “I bring in the money,” or “I watch the kids and make suppers.” Instead, it’s crucial to understand what each spouse needs on an emotional level: Men tend to crave respect and honor, while women need to feel loved and appreciated.
Both partners need to feel the other is there for them emotionally, and can feel the other’s pain and confront challenges in a healthy way. “You know how in some stores the employees wear T-shirts that say, ‘What can I do for you?’ ” Reuven asks. “That’s what you should be wearing in your mind when you greet your spouse at the end of the day.”
Reuven developed his method of counseling based on his learning with Rabbi Y. He had kept all the notebooks from their time together, and knew they were “filled with solid gold.” Inclined by temperament and training to be systematic, he set about organizing the material into a series of 24 classes he entitled the Marriage Project, which became the “Marriage Pro,” brand. “If people take the courses, they receive a whole system for understanding marriage. Once they’ve heard them, they speak my language, and it puts our conversation on a whole different level,” Reuven says.
Some of the class titles include: “Take Responsibility for Your Marriage,” “Trust and Control,” “I’m Not a Mind Reader,” “Emptying Your Emotional Jug,” “Before, During, and After a Fight,” “Emotional Allergies and Love Knots,” “Daily Temperature Read and Care Bank,” and “Practical Ways to Maximize Your Marriage.”
Along the way, he received help refining his ideas and building a plan of action. Upon his return to the United States, he and his wife moved to Staten Island, where he took a position at the New Springville Jewish Center in Staten Island under Rabbi Nate Segal. During their three years there, Reuven developed a relationship with Rabbi Yehuda Kovacs and his wife Basya, both of whom had taught communication skills to couples. The Kovacs’s had both worked for Shalom Task Force — Basya was the director of Shalom Workshop, and Yehuda taught many chassanim—but the organization had since closed the workshops. Shalom Task Force’s loss was Epstein’s gain, as the couple agreed to partner with him in presenting marriage workshops based on his system. Videographer Motty Engel came on board to video the classes taking place in attractive homes in front of real people.
Such an ambitious undertaking takes organization and planning. Reuven set about setting himself up as a non-profit organization (he himself makes no money outside of private sessions and speaking engagements). Determined to approach it with seichel, he enlisted successful business personalities in the Jewish community to advise him on how to grow an organization and deal with publicity, budgeting, and scaling. He made sure to identify his target market, which he describes as “couples who have a growth mentality.” He crafted an elevator pitch, and tried to identify the “domino people”— those key folks who bring in all the others so the most amount of people can benefit from the program.
Reuven also began posting shalom bayis lectures on torahanytime.com, to help drive internet traffic and word of mouth to the newly set-up website (www.marriagepro.co). About two months ago, he expanded his platform to live webinars for daters and dating mentors. So far, the feedback has been enthusiastic. One participant wrote that it made him realize that dating with no focus or direction is “like taking all your money you own and investing it with some stranger that you don’t know and have no idea what he will do with your money.”
He’s now in demand for dating talks. He’s finding that some folks aren’t clear about what they’re really looking for, like the young man who turned down shidduch after shidduch because he was convinced he only wanted a wife willing to host 100 people every week for Shabbos. After speaking with him, Reuven teased out that what he really wanted was a very capable, balabusta type who could cheerfully pull off sheva brachos or a big Purim seudah at a moment’s notice; he’d focused on one criterion instead of the overall qualities he sought. But Reuven counseled the young man that two busy people often need some time over Shabbos to reconnect, and hosting 100 people each week wouldn’t leave them much room to grow their relationship.
He also cautions daters to keep an eye out for behavior that may seem unimportant or even “cute” in the short term, but could spell disaster in the long term. A boy who drives fast may be an expert driver, or a reckless person and a showoff; the guy who takes his dates only to lavish places may be generous and a bon vivant, or have no sense of managing money. “Often extremes mimic each other,” Reuven says. “Confidence and arrogance can seem like the same thing, but one is healthy and the other isn’t.”
He stresses that getting to the chuppah isn’t the main goal. “The real work starts afterwards.” he says.
Read the Manual
Reuven is working hard to expand the Marriage Pro project and get the word out. He’d like to do more marriage preparation work, by lecturing in seminaries and yeshivos to young people ready to date. His “Date Like a Pro” program is now available on his site.
Reuven, who is also a rebbi in Ohr Yitzchok yeshivah in Brooklyn and works with Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstein at Ohr Naava Women’s Torah Center in Brooklyn, is currently busy working on a guidebook for married people about the halachos of marriage, scheduled to print after Pesach. It addresses the subject on three levels, from beginner basics through the development of each halachah in the Gemara, following with various piskei halachah in difficult cases that show the different she’ilos and shittos. A second book on shalom bayis is also in the works. With all these resources, surely Yitz and Shevy — and countless other couples — will find the help they need to detangle their sources of stress.
After all, when all else fails, it always pays to read the manual.
Reuven’s dating webinar included many wise tips for those in the parshah. Here are a few:
- Before dating someone, you should first date yourself. In other words, ask yourself the same questions you’d want to ask a date: Would you want to live in America or Eretz Yisrael? Would you like to have a large family? Do you think a wife should work part time, full time or not at all? Reuven suggests having five pointed questions prepared for a date before going out, but make sure to know your own answers to them before you start.
- Don’t just focus on selling yourself. “Like a job interview, dating involves both ‘sell’ and ‘prod’ aspects,” he explains. “You have to sell yourself, but you also have to find out if this is a good fit that makes sense for you.”
- Daters should verify their date’s history, and make sure any questionable items are really “history.” In other words, if a person used to drink heavily, is that really behind him or her? “Make your history into history,” Epstein cautions. Some indicators of emotional health you may want to keep an eye out for include how people deal with their friends, how they react to friends’ good news and bad news, and how they deal with adversity.
- In the short term, he tells daters that the most important issue is whether or not you feel a liking for the person you’re dating. “If the two of you have nothing in common, if you just don’t like him or feel any connection, that’s hard to change later,” he advises. “You’ll end up like the couples who tell me, ‘I love my spouse, but I don’t like him (or her).’”
- For longer-term dating, he advises making three separate lists of things to look for in a spouse: non-negotiable needs (e.g. must be willing to accept a chinuch lifestyle), negotiable “wants” (would prefer a family in klei kodesh), and “would be nice” (tall, short, sense of humor, etc.). “Focus on the things that will make a long-term difference in your life,” he says.
- Sometimes the best way to get a feel for someone is not to ask direct questions, but to create a real or fictional straw man. For example, a young man who wants to know how his date really feels about living in Eretz Yisrael could casually relate a story about a married friend’s experience living there, and see what type of reaction it provokes.
- Even certain professed long-term goals should be evaluated for their true meaning. “Take a guy who wants to be in Chaveirim or Hatzolah,” Reuven says. “What’s his motivation? Is he attracted by the lights and sirens, or does he sincerely want to help people? If his motive is l’Sheim Shamayim, it won’t cause a marriage to suffer. The litmus test is if a wife really needs help but her husband runs off to change someone else’s tire.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 652)