Today I'm writing about the importance of a support system during and after your conversion. Sure, this sounds obvious, but really, it can't be overemphasized. And not only do you need to know that your family and friends still love you and support your choices, but you also need observant friends to support you. It seems that many of us neglect that branch of the support tree.
In my own life, I haven't placed great emphasis on having observant friends. Quite frankly, the observant people I knew weren't the people I would normally be "friends" with. I've only lived in two very small Jewish communities, and I've always been the only person in my age range (though now there are 2 more!). I really enjoy my friendships with people older than myself, but sometimes you need another young, single gal (or guy) to vent to. I just didn't have access to people in my demographic.
So I've had to "make do" with my pre-orthodox life friends and family as my support system. Of course, it didn't feel like making do. My friends and family gave their best effort and had great compassion for me even though I seemed to have gone off the deep end of insanity! I thought I was doing as well as could be expected in the emotional and complicated conversion process, and that the process is necessarily a lonely one.
I am relieved to tell you that I was misguided. After going on a modern-orthodox Birthright trip (which happened about 2-3 weeks after I finished becoming fully observant), I now have the benefit of young, Jewish, observant friends. It's like night and day. (And after coming home, I began building virtual friendships with observant folk, which has also been an incredible boon to my sanity!)
When I'm unsure about how to do something, rather than bother my rabbi with a very basic question, I can call someone more knowledgeable than myself or who has more resources available than I do to find the answer. I'm especially lucky to have a nice mix of FFB and BT friends, which I think is key. Both groups have such valuable knowledge and experiences that have been a real benefit to me.
And most important of all, when I'm having a "Jewish problem," I can talk to someone who understands. (And someone who knows I'm not crazy.) My dad and my local friends are amazing, but there are nuances they miss or I spend more time explaining why something is an issue than venting about the issue. And even better? Gushing about girly things that are tznius!
All of these benefits seem small individually, but together, they make for a much saner (and much happier) Chavi.
Basically, it comes down to having a role model. Not an after-school special kind of role model, but being able to see someone else in substantially the same position as yourself. I had a major revelation during a meeting with a rabbi recently: that perhaps the lack of a role model was a major part of why I spent so many years thinking "I could never be observant." I saw kids doing it, I saw young families doing it, and I saw retired people doing it. How was someone like myself observant? What did that look like? Why should I bother being observant when no one else in my social circle was observant? Humans are social creatures, and I was young and single. Cutting off all your ability to date (1. during the conversion process and/or 2. afterwards because there's not anyone else observant to date) and eat out with your friends can be incredibly intimidating when you're really not sure if this is something you want to do for the rest of your life. (Remember, when I started this path, I was 20 and going to college in a beach town! Talk about a place where looking tznius will make you stick out like a sore thumb!)
Without seeing others in your position and committed to your goal, it's a HUGE leap of faith to make that commitment because you don't have the benefit of seeing how it will affect your life. I didn't have the benefit of a role model before deciding to become observant, but the desire for the goal finally overpowered my fears. And because I had to take the harder route, I've taken over 6 years to get here. I'm thankful that I found role models when I did because this help and support came just as I was getting settled into the business of living orthodox. If I had known role models earlier, perhaps I would have successfully made these choices years ago!
Shoulda woulda coulda?