Last week, Beyond Teshuva had a great breakdown of the kinds of support BTs and conversion candidates need to have in order to flourish in the Jewish community: What Type of Support Are You Missing? I've written before about the importance of support.
The author suggests five categories before opening it up to the commenters:
1) Teachers of fundamental and advance[d] Torah topics
2) Rabbis who can rule on halachic questions
3) Mentors who act as surrogate parents and help with major topics like Shidduchim and Parenting
4) Friends who act as spiritual coaches and tell us to slow down and inspire us to move up [and all other friend responsibilities, I'd imagine, like letting you bawl your eyes out]
5) Spouses who are soul mates on our spiritual journey
Edits in [ ] are mine. Yes, I bluebook my posts. Please ignore that statement if you are involved in making shidduchim.
As a "relatively older" single, this is what my support system looks like now. I've ranked them in the order of how much I depend on them, but I don't know if the original post was intended to be ranked.
- Mentors/Fake family
Clearly, spouse is irrelevant to me. I don't have a boyfriend either. I would say that friends and my "fake family" rank equally, but I do have other people I consider to be mentors in the way they author intends. I just don't have much for them to mentor yet... [Side note: I used to say "adoptive family," but then people thought I was actually adopted and converting because of that! Oops.]
As of right now, I generally lack teachers (though I'm waiting in the wings until a friend's life settles down). I attend some shiurim, but I don't learn regularly with another person, neither a chavruta nor a teacher. I'm working on changing that right now, but it's difficult. I feel that I need a teacher more than a chavruta at my level. Thankfully, I have access to many friends who are at a level that they can act as a teacher to someone like me, but we're all busy.
Conversion candidates don't have access to the services of kiruv/learning organizations like Partners in Torah or Aish because those organizations limit their work to halachic Jews. Similarly, seminaries and yeshivot aren't open to conversion candidates, even to some of their "open to the public" programs (as opposed to an isolated class). Often, we have to make do with what we have, and that's our friends and mentors. And usually, those people feel they aren't knowledgeable enough to act in that role. Occassionally, a rabbi has the time and willingness to tutor/teach/learn with a conversion candidate, but that is relatively uncommon.
The most difficult thing about arranging your own learning situation is that you need to pick a topic before you approach a potential teacher. After all, they need to know if they're qualified to learn that with you! That is a post for a different day.
Further complicating all these matters is that these people really should be paid for their time if it's a true teaching relationship. Thankfully, many people tutor, mentor, and teach conversion candidates and refuse to be compensated for it. They consider it a mitzvah. But as I said, not everyone has access to these kinds of people. And some batei din assign tutors who must be paid a set rate (also a debate for another day).
Personally, I think the support system makes or breaks a candidate. This comes from someone who had nothing more than an online support system until last year. For over five years, I didn't even have an online community. I struggled alone and didn't have a support system of any kind other than my family and non-Jewish friends, plus a random Jewish friend here and there. At the time, I thought I was doing fine, and by many measures, I was. (That in itself is shocking!) But having finally found a support system, I can't begin to tell you what a difference it makes. Things that used to be a huge hassle are suddenly effortless because the answer/assistance is a chat message or phone call away. And I can finally discuss "Jewish" issues without having to explain them. That in itself is a major change in how I think. I used to have to spend so much time "translating" Jewish situations/issues/problems to friends and family that I lost the emotion behind it. For example, it's hard to cry to your dad about a conversion issue when you have to spend 20 minutes explaining why it's an issue and why, no, Judaism isn't insane.
If you don't have a support system, I encourage you to reach out, even if it's through the interwebz. After all, this blog began because I finally reached the point where I couldn't do it alone anymore!
PS - There are still emails that haven't been returned. I'm working on it. I heart you all.