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Make Marriage Great Again

Barbara Bensoussan

Are you willing to embark on the hard work of unconditional giving? After studying how to maximize his own marriage, Reuven Epstein’s dynamic course helps couples reclaim theirs

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

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GROWING TOGETHER “It’s hard work,” admits Epstein, “But once you have that connection, all the rest — money issues, family issues, housework issues — become details that can be worked out between you” (Photos: Amir Levy)

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?” (excerpted)

Convince Me

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.

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

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.”

Stay Connected

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. (excerpted)

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