Family Therapy and Pastoral Counseling with Rabbi Alpern

Pastoral counseling conjures a Pastor, a keeper of sheep, and a congregation, the sheep. Clergy people are the Shepard and the Congregation followers. Time for an update.

My mentor and rabbi, Dr. Edwin H. Friedman is cut from a different cloth. He expects everyone to be a leader. This is part of their therapy. He warns of the herd instinct of the flock, and the force for togetherness that smothers individuality. Followers get the “bla’s” when they do not take responsibility for finding their own paths in life. The herding instinct militates against genuine self-definition, which is necessary for well defined leadership. In other words the metaphor breaks down. Sheep are sheep and people are people. Sheep need a Shepard so they do not stray from the flock. People need to stay together while maintaining their individual identity. The flock is challenged to Shepard their own lives.


In Marital Pastoral practice the flock is often of three, a perfect triangle;

pastor, bride, and groom. This triangle intersects with many others, and the geometry is complicated by the fact that almost all couples come from different religions and cultures. When I co-officiate the triangle becomes a square. Either way, in the end, every couple must learn to pastor their own lives. As my mentor explains, contrary to popular thinking, it does not require two people working on a marriage to change the bonds and binds between spouses. Even one partner with vision and courage can Shepard a relationship along paths of still waters and harmony.  In other words, if you want your partner to change, stay connected, dare to be different, and change yourself rather than trying to fix them.

Couples often focus on their wedding and the perfect ceremony and are reminded that a wedding is a portal to the future. Once you are married the task is to stay together, and bonded, but not so fused that one partner is the pastor and the other “sheepish”. God willing couples hear my counsel that playfulness and a sense of humor are an essential counterbalance to seriousness in marriage.

At Temple Shabbat Shalom we practice what we preach. Our home is a sanctuary and our kitchen and dining room tables are altars.  We do table services around the cycle of the year, including, for example, on Rosh Hashanah and New Years, on Sukkoth and Thanksgiving. Both Karen and I lead, and our conversations on the sanctity of spiritual practice keep us focused. We are also study partners, a chavura of two. This focus has opened our eyes, mind and hearts to an alternative to the herding that is the hallmark of many congregations. We both have Kiddush cups since each of us understand our personal responsibility to have imagination, and to be on our own individual quest for self. This is how a cup becomes a holy grail. All we offer in the ALPERN SEDERS we do ourselves.

I have been blessed with the best teachers of our generation, and most of all with Rabbi Friedman. More than any of my other “Shepherds” Ed teaches us how to chart our course in an ever changing world. His last Book, A Failure of Nerve, Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Seabury Books, N.Y.N.Y. is must reading. I suggest a study group to discuss how we move from failure to courage. Every time I finish the book I say, in Hebrew, Chazak Chazak V neat Chazake. Be strong. Be strong. And let us strengthen one another.




The glass is broken and the real relationship begins. Idealization is shattered just as the honeymoon begins. During the wedding ceremony

renewal is mentioned, for love is a process, and ever changing. Just as every couple writes their own ceremony, every couple is called to organize their conversation at table to the supreme themes of art and song. Yeats is right that innocence and beauty are born in custom and ceremony. The poet also teaches that young love becomes true love, like wine, in aging.

Young we love each other, and are ignorant.


Do you expect perfection in your marriage? Will, or did you save the broken shards of the glass broken at your wedding?

My mentor assures us that on a scale of one to a hundred no couple has ever scored more than a seventy in marriage. This means a “C” is an “A”

Good news for those expecting a perfect marriage.


With an abundance of pre-marital counseling, why is the divorce rate still so high? Couples turn to Priests, Pastors and Rabbis to get married.

How do you stay married? Do you have a specific plan? Exactly how will you raise your children?

The good news is that Temple Shabbat Shalom has a plan in place. Remember, your wedding day approaches at lightening speed and any Pastoral advice most likely finds sage counsel out to pasture.

Write out your plan for raising your family before the wedding.

Good counsel.



 A Family Systems Approach to Your Wedding

A wedding weekend is a hinge in time; doors are opened or closed that impact the family system for generations. The Rehearsal is often as important as the actual ceremony, affording bride and groom a chance to demonstrate that they will stay connected to their family of origin even as they become a couple.

I counsel couples to show up with a clear plan that illustrates a meeting of minds. Where parents stand or sit, and the placement of brides and grooms; and their maids and men, has already been decided. Couples are also permitted to try something original. If a wedding co-coordinator is present they are informed of all decisions by bride and groom before the rehearsal. Let the ceremony begin.


Resources, from Pastoral Counseling to Family Systems Theory

What one book on staying married? I am tempted to send you to

Ed again, or to Dr. Michael Kerr, the main consultant, via his book on family evaluation, to my year of post graduate family therapy training with Dr. Peter Titelman in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Instead, I suggest Roberta M. Gilbert, M.D. and her Extraordinary Relationships, A New Way of Thinking About Human Interactions, Chronimed Publishing 1992.

All that follows is from her study:


(From Chapter 19: Ten Misconceptions and Ten Rules for an extraordinary relationship.


1.) My partner will make me happy.

2.) I will change you.

3.) Logic and emotion are at odds.

4.) I have a right to react to your outbursts.

5.) This relationship will never get better.

6.) I have done all I can do, and still…..

7.) If we just talk about our feelings things will be better.

8.) My family did me in!

9.) Love me like my mother or you don’t love me.

10.) If I can only get away from my family, all will be well.


 10 Rules for Extraordinary Relationships:

1.) I am calm and can be different and objective.

2.) I practice introspection and will change myself without expectations of reciprocity.

3.) I will bond without binding, and stay in touch, even in marital crisis.

4.) I will be the initiator.

5.) I will be less reactive.

6.) I do not feel your feelings, I feel my own.

7).) I rely on inner guidance more than the need to be liked.

8.) I love myself so that I may love you.

9.) I will make calm and thoughtful decisions that will stand the test of time.

10.) I can say both “We” and “Me”.


The Ten Reduced to One:

“The goal… is to rise up out of the emotional togetherness of the herd.”

The founder of Family Therapy, Murray Bowen M.D.