By Bob Garber
As someone constantly learning with Baalei Tshuva and potential BTs, my relationship always seems to end with the marriage of my students. Up until the wedding, I frequently see my students at Shabbatonim, visiting our home for Shabbos, or attending an interesting lecture or program. The wedding is usually an exciting, joyous party with many mutual friends, current and former students attending. The Sheva Berachos are filled with inspiring divrei Torah and dancing, usually in an intimate setting with friends and family.
However, once the festivities end, connections seem to begin to diminish. Of course, we invite the newlyweds for Shabbos, and they come a few times, but even this contact gradually diminishes as the couple begins their new lives together and get involved in their careers and their community. My wife and I have attended numerous such weddings in the past five years, and in almost all cases we have gradually lost contact with former students, rarely seeing them except for chance meetings. I don’t necessarily think that this is a bad thing, as couples develop their own relationship and build their home and family.
Nevertheless, the following pattern has also become increasingly common. I start hearing rumors or innuendos that someone is separated, but of course no one can really speak about it because its lashon hora. Then I hear rumors about a get, and then still later I meet the person (sometimes with a baby) and find out that the couple is in fact divorced. Sometimes the BT also appears to be dressing inappropriately, and later is no longer Shomer Shabbos.
I am very saddened by this pattern. Marriage, instead of being a significant stepping stone to personal and spiritual growth, seems in many cases to have become the culmination of spiritual growth, and is unable to survive the ongoing pressures and challenges that observant couples inevitably face.
Part of the problem is that I don’t think the couple, family, friends and even rabbis and other spiritual guides focus much on life after marriage. The reality is that it’s not easy changing the focus of one’s life when you get married, and the older the chassan and kallah are, the more difficult that transition becomes. Moreover, it’s also not easy to learn to prioritize another person’s needs over one’s own needs, especially when that person is so different than oneself. After the excitement wears off, and the couple becomes entrenched in their routines, sometimes communication and expectations between the parties get out of sync. I also think especially BTs, who do not have observant parents as role models, may become confused as to their spiritual direction both individually, and in relation to their spouses.
The worst part is that I believe the downhill slide is totally preventable. Many couples just don’t know that Judaism has much to contribute to the ongoing relationship, and that learning about marriage and relationships, e.g. Shalom Bayis, may be just as satisfying and important as learning about Shabbos and Kashrus. The Torah has much to say even about the personal relationship skills that each partner in a marriage need to practice and perfect. In addition, there is no reason that inspirational Shabbos and learning experiences should end after marriage. I believe that Kiruv and regular Jewish institutions need to devote more efforts to reaching out specifically to BT married couples and provide them both with the spiritual resources such as classes and learning opportunities, as well as practical and personal resources for handling the stresses of living as a couple and later with children.