Rabbi Uses Humor to Help Couples Find Marital Bliss

June 5, 2007 | admin

Rabbi Uses Humor to Help Couples Find Marital Bliss

{mosimage}Sep. 3, 2003

Eric Martin
Special to The Gazette

Rabbi Stephen Baars of Bethesda teaches “Bliss,” a marriage seminar that mixes Powerpoint presentations with advice drawn from the Torah and Talmud, at Aish HaTorah learning center in Bethesda Aug. 19.
 
A Rabbi, a marriage counselor and a comedian walk into a room.

It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but it could simply be Stephen Baars of Bethesda starting one of his marriage and parenting seminars.

“If you look at marriage the right way, then everything that happens fits,” said the red-headed Baars in his warm British accent. “If you look at it the wrong way, then everything that happens is a pain in the neck.”

Baars directs the Bethesda branch of Aish HaTorah, a Jewish educational organization based in Jerusalem with branches in 18 U.S. cities (the organization’s Hebrew name means “the life behind Judaism”).

Last year, troubled by American divorce rates that he said now reach 50 percent, Baars created “Bliss,” a marriage seminar that mixes Powerpoint presentations with advice drawn from the Torah and Talmud, the sacred texts of Judaism. Baars often gets his points across by playing clips from Hollywood films and enjoys regaling audiences with his own brand of anecdotal humor.

“If you can make your point with a good joke, there’s no retort,” he said.

Growing up in a secular household in London, Baars thought about working in business or sales. But at 19, on a vacation to Israel with a friend, he became enamored with Judaism.

He returned home after six months and told his surprised parents that he wanted to become a rabbi.

“It was a little bit of a shock, but they handled it very well,” he said.

Baars spent nine years in Jerusalem, where he completed rabbinical school through Aish HaTorah and met his wife, Ruth. The couple married and moved to Los Angeles where Baars took a job with Aish HaTorah and, on the advice of a friend, began dabbling in standup comedy.

He eventually performed at L.A. Improv, but realized that performing required an intense commitment and was less rewarding than his spiritual work. “To be successful in standup comedy you have to work on it,” he said. “It takes 10 years to become an overnight sensation.”
Still, many of his comedic skills have been useful in his work as a rabbi. “Timing and being able to keep people’s attention are very important concepts,” he said.

Baars left Los Angeles and standup behind when he moved to the area 13 years ago and began teaching Jewish studies classes in various rented spaces.

Five years ago, through the help of donations from local families, Baars opened the Aish Bethesda center at the intersection of Old Georgetown Road and Tilden Lane.

Baars has been happily married for 16 years while rearing seven children; three boys and four girls, including 8-year-old twins, Ariela and Brocha. A daughter, Chava, 15, is the oldest; the newest arrival, Jacob Aiden, was born Aug. 11.

Baars said the failures and successes in his family have influenced the techniques he preaches in “Bliss.” “When you learn, you can apply it,” he said. “When it works, you can teach it to other people.”

Baars has high expectations for “Bliss”; he hopes to reach 100,000 people within two years and to eventually reduce the divorce rate to single digits. This may seem like an impossible dream, but Baars likes setting his sights high.

“If you pick a goal that’s reasonable to achieve, you didn’t look high enough,” he said.
At a “Bliss” seminar on Aug. 19, an audience of 20 listened intently to Baars. He began by stating that many people marry with unreasonable expectations.

“We have an ideal of what our spouse should do, but we don’t go in with an expectation of what we should do,” he said.

Baars went on to say that conflict in marriage can actually be constructive if it results in change. “The worst thing you can do in an argument is not learn from it,” he said. “People who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
 
Baars also offered advice for parents in the audience. “Your job as a parent is not to solve your children’s problems,” he told them. “Your job is to teach your children to solve their problems.”

Most listeners spoke positively about “Bliss.”
 
“It helps in understanding how to communicate with your spouse, in listening to the other side,” said David Shaked of Bethesda.

Ed Katz of Washington, D.C. agreed. “If a lot more people saw it, there’d be a lot less divorce,” he said. His wife, Cindy, added that Baars “talks about relationship issues in a spiritual manner that transcends religion.”
 
Chris Gupta of Rockville said that for him getting married was a huge risk. Gupta was born in Bombay, but his family moved to the United State when he was 4. He grew up in Bethesda, but when he wanted to start a family 13 years ago, his parents asked him to return to India and arrange a marriage. He spoke only once with his future wife before asking her parents for her hand in marriage.

“We knew each other 20 minutes before getting married,” he said, “but [in India] there’s a philosophy that you have to grow into marriage.”
 
Gupta said the United States has a high rate of divorce because each generation continues the cycle of their parents. “Upbringing has so much to do with how marriage happens,” he said.

His wife, Alka, with whom he has two daughters, said she found Baars to be insightful. “He has handled the psychology of relationships very well,” she said.

Baars said marriage is a commonly misunderstood institution. “Most marriage counselors want to fix what is the issue,” he said. “I show [people] the conflict is all part of being married.”
 
Conflict, yes, but when a relationship becomes abusive, he said, it’s probably time to divorce.

“You can work with abuse, too, but the two people really have to want to change,” he said.

At an Aish HaTorah convention in Stamford, Conn., in November, Baars plans to teach other rabbis to lead “Bliss” seminars. He said he hopes they will spread the message that although happy marriage requires work, sacrifice and selflessness, it is possible.

“People get married for all kinds of reasons, not necessarily the right ones,” he said. “Get married because you want to help somebody.”

For information on “Bliss” and other Aish HaTorah programs, visit www.aish.com or www.getbliss.com or call 301-881-9010.
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