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Some British guys in the ‘60s once sang, “Love is all you need” – but if love were truly all you needed for a successful relationship or marriage, it’s likely we’d have less divorce, less marriage counseling, and less soul-searching as people change and grow apart.
The reality, though, is that there are many factors to a successful long-term relationship, and one such factor relates to the hidden pitfalls in relationships between people of different faith backgrounds. From engaging with each other’s family to deciding what to do with each other’s holidays to dealing with differing views on morality, life, and death, things can get unexpectedly complicated – and that's without any mention of children.
Yvonne Eschner is no stranger to these challenges.
Eschner wants to help couples avoid the heartbreak that she experienced during the failure of her own marriage, due in significant part to religious and spiritual differences. Using what she’s learned, she wants to give couples the skills and knowledge to help them navigate the conflicts that may arise.
Her solution is Spiritual Autobiography, a six-week class, facilitated by rabbis, intended to help interfaith couples understand each other’s spiritual beliefs in a deeper and more comprehensive way.
An array of practices – including exercises dealing with memory, pinpointing spiritual experiences, and more – help individuals to draw their own personal, spiritual roadmap. Yvonne says she hopes this program will “help couples to be stronger together as they face the inherent personal and familial challenges that interfaith marriages pose.”
Eschner draws on her own life experiences, which make her uniquely suitable for leading such a program. An elementary school teacher who sought to explore her theology and spirituality, she became a United Church of Christ minister. Later in life, she discovered that her grandparents were actually Jewish, converting to Christianity when they left Russia in 1910. Eventually, with the support of Temple Israel in Natick, MA, Eschner converted to Judaism.
Along the way, she both attended Harvard Divinity School and subsequently spent 20 years as adjunct faculty. Yvonne also hosted an interfaith radio show on a Boston radio station for 25 years, first bringing Jews and Christians together in dialogue and then, fortuitously, adding Muslim voices, in early 2001 – just a few short months before September 11. Interfaith dialogue and learning are close to her heart.
Not just for married couples, the Spiritual Autobiography class is also appropriate for people contemplating marriage and couples not yet at that stage. The pilot program is small, with only five or six couples per class, providing a powerful intimacy that gives the class the potential to be so potent.
Eschner, who has taught similar classes for 20 years, says that after participating in the program, “People become incredibly bonded; beyond anything I have experienced, including retreats. Husbands and wives learn things about each other that they never knew.” Simply, the more couples can learn about each other at these deep, spiritual levels, the more likely it is that their union will be a long-lasting, fruitful one.
Eschner says her time thus far in the URJ’s JewV’Nation Fellowship has been invaluable, especially learning skills in overall project management. As she moves beyond the program, she says, she is excited to bear witness to the “powerful, surprising, and long-lasting impact that it will have on participants” in helping them to strengthen their relationships by “realizing the essential role” of personal spirituality and religion.
This profile is part of an ongoing series highlighting projects from the inaugural cohort of the URJ’s JewV’Nation Fellowship. For more information about Yvonne’s project and the JewV’Nation Fellowship, visit urj.org/jewvnation-fellowship.