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Rabbis aim to up their marriage counselling game with online lectures

Rabbi Rafi Lipner Rabbi Rafi Lipner


When Rabbi Mark Fishman returned from Israel to Montreal two years ago, the ink barely dry on his ordination certificate, he soon noticed the gap between the ivory tower and practical rabbinics.

“I came straight from smicha at [Yeshivat] Hamivtar,” he said. “My experience in the field was limited in terms of pastoral counselling.”

Fishman, who will become senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Tikvah this summer, is one of three Canadian rabbis participating in a recently launched online lecture series about rabbinic marriage counselling that aims to close this gap.

The 17-week course tackles one topic in each hour-and-a-half session. From dating to marriage to divorce, sessions focus more on sensitive subjects such as intimacy, spousal abuse and other relationship nitty-gritty. Offered by Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future and affiliate Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Rabbinical Theological Seminary, the year-long course began in October and brings together 40 rabbis from North America, Australia and Israel.

For Fishman, 34, one of the course’s highlights is a Sunday in April, when he’ll travel to New York City for an all-day session about divorce and mediation. It is one of two such trips to the YU campus.

“Being able to bring a couple that is probably divorcing,” he said, “to try to keep that couple married…to express their differences in a way that has a positive resolution.”

Further west along Highway 401, the other two Canadian participants in the program grapple with their own counselling issues.

Rabbis Aaron Greenberg and Rafi Lipner of Toronto are no strangers to YU. Both did their graduate work at its Azrieli School of Education; Lipner also studied there as an undergrad and received his ordination from RIETS.

They have spent much of their careers with a younger demographic in more informal settings. Greenberg, 37, is the director of the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Toronto’s York University and runs a prayer service for young adults.

Lipner, 39, founded The House, a drop-in centre for young adults and assumed the senior rabbi position at Shaarei Tefillah about a year ago. He also has been added to the roster of Jewish Tribune contributors, writing a weekly column called House Conversations.

“I wanted to reeducate myself and educate myself and create a network,” Greenberg said of the counselling course. “You can never do this too much.”

Greenberg, who was ordained by Rabbi Gavriel Zinner, considers networking “of paramount importance.” Like his colleagues, he consults not only with rabbis but also with medical and mental health professionals.

“Every rabbi has to know when to pass the buck,” said Greenberg. “You can be the frontline service person, but at the end of the day, you have to recognize your limits.”

In today’s intertwined world, though, rabbis are being asked to stretch those limits.

“Now we’re saying, you’re not just a referral service,” said Rabbi Levi Mostofsky, director of continuing education at YU’s CJF. “You have a unique rabbinic role and the ability to partner with the therapist.”

The course, said Lipner, will further that partnership.

“I want to get more tools to learn about the issues,” he said, “and be able to ask an intelligent question.”

Fishman’s mental health professional of choice is more readily available than most: his wife, a psychologist, serves as a sounding board “every day, every hour.”

Much of her guidance contains common sense, but he expects the course to improve his confidence in the heat of the moment – in field situations like some Mostofsky mentioned.



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