Two large Queens outreach organizations partnered to host a powerful, stimulating, unforgettable event for married couples. Emet Outreach and Chazaq held a panel discussion about shalom bayis, with experts answering questions from the audience about relationships, marriage, and raising families.
The four-person panel included Emet’s Director Rabbi Akiva Rutenberg (who is a licensed social worker), Chazaq Director Rabbi Ilan Meirov, community activist Rabbi Refael Ribacoff, and Rabbi Benzion Klatzko (founder of Shabbat.com and national educational director for Olami). Rabbi Reuven Kigel, Emet’s warm and personable Campus Director, moderated the event.
Despite heavy rain, a large audience of nearly 150 people attended the event, immersed and captivated for nearly two hours. Rabbi Kigel introduced each panelist and selected questions. He occasionally shared his own advice, as well as relevant anecdotes, punctuated by his trademark humor.
Panelists opened with brief introductory remarks. Rabbi Ribacoff related a story about Rav Moshe Sternbuch, who was asked by a student for a brachah that his upcoming married life be perfect. Rav Sternbuch replied that no such thing exists. He instead gave the student a blessing that he successfully navigate through married life’s different challenges. He drew a comparison between the secular world’s views on marriage and the Torah’s view. The secular world feels marriage is like a tea kettle; it boils on the fire but is doomed to fizzle when taken off the stove. The Jewish view is that doom and gloom are mostly the result of no communication or proper education.
Rabbi Klatzko pointed out that listening to advice and tips and then implementing them are two different things, but both rely on constant vigilance on the part of both spouses. If you want things to work out and your marriage to blossom beautifully, make an active effort, because it doesn’t come on its own.
Putting on a Smile for One’s Spouse
Panelists were asked if it’s reasonable for husbands to expect their wives to greet them with a smile after a long day with children. Rabbi Klatzko answered that both partners should do their best to refresh themselves before seeing each other after a long day. However, each side needs to understand that the nature of exhaustion is, well, exhaustion; don’t expect a big smile and elated enthusiasm. That being said, it’s still not a license for chronic grouchiness. Negative interactions tend to build on each other and create bad memories.
He added that if you notice your spouse looking tired or stressed, take the opportunity to show compassion. Ask if you can get her tea or coffee, or if she wants to lie down. A little empathy can go a long way.
Different Levels of Observance
Another question raised was how to encourage one’s spouse to be more religiously-compatible with one’s own level. Rabbi Ribacoff said that this can be challenging, especially because people change and grow over time, and not necessarily at the same pace. It’s important not to try to force the matter, but be positive, encouraging, and patient. He suggested learning with one’s spouse as a positive, inspiring experience.
Rabbi Klatzko shared a story about a wife who told him that her husband keeps halachah perfectly, but does not feel the “joy” of Judaism. He explained to her that different people express their joy differently, and just because she did not observe his joy and fulfillment, she shouldn’t assume he’s not feeling it.
Making One’s Spouse Happy
Panelists were asked what people can do if they feel they’ve expended every effort and yet their spouse is still not happy with them. Rabbi Ribacoff said that the immense effort a partner expends may not necessarily be the “love language” the other spouse wants. We naturally assume that our spouses will react positively to the same things that satisfy us. Everyone has his own way in which he feels appreciated. Imagine a person who loves ice cream and assumes that everyone else must also like ice cream. How flummoxed will he be when he meets the one person who dislikes ice cream.
He added that women usually drop hints about what they want, and if husbands focus on picking up on them, as well as expressing their desire to make their wives happy, that can go a long way.
Dealing With Technology
Another question touched on a common problem experienced by many families these days. How should someone deal with the belief that his or her spouse pays more time and attention to technology than to the partner? Rabbi Rutenberg said that, sadly, almost every couple he knows is struggling to some degree with this very issue. In fact, if not for Shabbos, he’s afraid to think of the amount of quality time we would have.
His advice? Start by using what you already have, by taking advantage of Shabbos. Make the hours spent together – away from technology – really matter, by connecting on a deep level. The next step is to plan ahead by setting aside technology-free time slots.
Rabbi Rutenberg said that studies show that cell-phone addiction currently matches heroine-level addiction in both scope and damage; cell phones can and do destroy families. As with any addiction, the first step is cognizance of the problem. When we recognize that the problem exists, we can fix it slowly, with proper determination.
Rabbi Kigel interjected with personal advice, saying that as soon as he walks through the door to his house, he shuts his phone in front of his wife and kids, to show them that he’s unplugging to spend time with them. He then jokingly asked the crowd, “How many of you know how to turn off your phones?”
Making Ends Meet
Panelists were asked how to handle a situation in which one spouse wants the other to work more, to help the family have more parnasah. Rabbi Rutenberg said that a big part of having a healthy marriage is managing expectations. While a partner may have certain marital obligations, you also need to use common sense when deciding what to ask your spouse to do.
Rabbit Meirov quoted Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman, who says that some people live to make money, while others make money to live. Couples need to work together, and discuss their core values and what their priorities are. You should not try to force your viewpoint on your spouse, but rather discuss issues and work together to come to a consensus, because communication yields results.
Chazaq and Emet Outreach are pillars of the Queens community. Rabbi Rutenberg and Rabbi Meirov expressed their excitement at partnering for this historic event, and look forward to hosting similar events in the future. The event was videotaped by TorahAnytime and posted on their website. Attendees were grateful for the chance to see Ashkenazi and Sefardi experts discuss common, relevant issues in marriage and relationships. They were inspired by the positive outlook conveyed by each panelist, who focused on the fundamentals of a healthy relationship in which spouses want to make each other happy, and build a family with Torah values.