Tuesday, May 5, 2015

UPDATED: The 5 Types of Mentors You Need

I've written several times before about the need for every convert and BT to have a mentor. But really, you need at least five mentors because each will expose you to a different part of the community and to different facets of Jewish life. As a bonus, you see how multiple people handle similar situations and learn traditions and minhagim you'd never learn from a book. 

While I believe that every one of the five is necessary, that doesn't mean you need five separate people. Five would be best because it would give you the most exposure to different ways of doing Jewish, but less will do in a pinch.

Someone at the same life stage. 

I never thought life stages would be so important until I entered the orthodox world. Most people's social lives center around people of a similar life stage. I think this is the most important of the potential mentors you can have because this person provides a model for your life today. 

Here's a list of some of the possible life stages you might be experiencing:
  • Young singles ("young" depends on your community)
  • Older singles (again very community-dependent)
  • Young marrieds (who usually don't have children)
  • Married without children (once you reach the age yentas assume you're having "problems")
  • Married with children (and the different age levels, of course!)
  • Empty-nesters
  • Retirees
Getting matched up with someone (or a couple) at the same stage as you helps you see how you will fit into the community. Without someone at your life stage (and nearish to you in age), it's hard to imagine what someone like you "looks like" as an orthodox person. I think this is the main reason I took such a long time to become orthodox. I was a single college co-ed in a subtropical beach community, and I didn't know anyone who could model what that looks like for an orthodox woman. Nearly everyone I knew was at least 20 years older than me. Most college women are unlikely to take tznius fashion advice from the average mom, and most moms don't have the time or energy to spend on their appearance like a college student does. Nothing is wrong with either; it's just a different stage of life. I didn't believe that until I experienced it myself, even though I'm not a mom yet. 

Someone at a similar stage of life will "get" the challenges and struggles you're dealing with, whether it's dating, kids, or taking care of aging parents. They'll understand the halachic issues your life stage creates, as well as being able to support you emotionally. You'll also be able to be social together, whether that means bars, museums, hiking, or playdates. In short, they'll be someone who can be a real friend to you.

Someone your own age. 

Usually, this will be taken care of by finding someone at your life stage, but not always. For example, you might have a hard time finding someone in your life stage, especially older singles and "older" married couples without children. These groups in particular tend to feel some level of isolation or frustration in the orthodox community. Or maybe you find that the people at your life stage aren't your age. The advice I gave for life stage is the same here: it's about finding people you can model your behavior after. What does an orthodox person your age look like, act like, do? That's not something you'll learn in a halacha book.

A parental-like figure of the same gender. 

A mom-figure or dad-figure is invaluable, so long as you don't get creepy about it. They're not your mom or dad. You're not their responsibility, and they're not a financial resource for you. They're your friend who happens to be a generation or so older than you. There's a different kind of emotional support you get from someone older than you. I've been lucky enough to experience that in my Jewish journey. I already see that in myself and friends, even though we're not exactly parental figures.

In a way, this allows you to see your future in the Jewish community. You'll also get advice from someone who's been around longer than you, both in the Jewish community and alive in general. This person can be an invaluable resource for advice, both practical and social. They'll usually have a good understanding of the community politics and may even be someone who can go to bat for you with rabbis or other leadership. 

I make a caveat for conversion candidates and BTs who are very young. If you're in your college years, I think you should have two older-generation mentors: perhaps an older single or young married in addition to someone your parents' age. You may even want to know both an older single and a young married because you don't know what the next stage of life will be for you. (And having been an older single, it's not a death sentence.)

A family with kids still at home. 

If you have a family or plan to at some point in your life, you should befriend a family with kids still at home. You need to see what Jewish family life looks like day-to-day because the home is the real center of Jewish life. This is where the rubber meets the road of Jewish learning and where you will learn the most if you pay attention. 

If you're retirement age, I think connecting with a younger family is beneficial but not necessary. You'd get all the relevant home-learning you need by befriending a couple of similar age and life stage.

However, the young family is the group who has the least amount of time to deal with another person underfoot. At least, that's how you'll feel. Some family might make you feel that way too, but there's a family out there who will be glad to have you as a guest. Be respectful of their time, but don't be afraid to ask to come over for this or for that. It probably won't occur to them, or they'll think you must be busy. So ask. Worst they say is no, right?

An easy way "in" is to babysit for the family, if you have the time and inclination. However, be careful that you're not exploited or made uncomfortable by this arrangement. You should be paid like any other babysitter, unless you're offering it as a birthday present, other specific gift, or as bartering for tutoring or cooking lessons, whatever. You can offer a reduced rate if you like, but make sure the boundaries don't get too blurred. I have seen several family-candidate relationships sour when the family exploited free babysitting or tried to use the candidate as a convenient Shabbos goy to do things they can't halachically do. One of the stories that made me saddest was a friend who was looking hard for meals one week. Finally, a family she was close to called her up late on Friday, and she thought they were offering a meal. In reality, the eruv was down, and they wanted her to come over and push the stroller to shul. A conversion candidate is trying to live a shomer Shabbat life, so using them as a Shabbos goy is disrespectful of them and of the process itself. It's very difficult to stand up for yourself in these kinds of situations if you encounter them (they are relatively unusual, thankfully), but perhaps mentioning the problem to the local rabbi or another community leader can help address the situation. They could even offer a community class on the laws of "the Shabbos goy," which are actually very complex and interesting (and useful!). However, I dream of the day when a Shabbos goy is only used in an emergency situation, not for someone's personal comfort.

A rabbi or other trusted halachic resource. 

You might find it surprising that I list this last and that it doesn't just say "a rabbi." This mentor could be any of the people listed above. If not, then this person is least likely to be a close personal friend. They'll more likely be a resource rather than a mentor. Nothing wrong with that either. This isn't someone you get halachic rulings from. Most of the time, you don't need a ruling, you just need guidance and it's not complicated.

So how do you find these people?

Don't just walk around asking people to be your mentor. They'll probably get weirded out. You might be able to find one or more of these people online, and I don't discourage that, but ideally, these should all be people you can see face-to-face, even if they're in a community a half-hour or hour away. 

These relationships may be mentorships, but they're really just prioritized friendships. You find people you like, start becoming friends, then prioritize that friendship. Don't let the relationship go cold. Invite them to things. Ask to be invited to other things. Not just Jewish stuff! Keep in touch. Deep relationships are the forte of introverts, so this method works for both introverts and extroverts. So no excuses!

I didn't have ANY of these kinds of people in my life while I was converting excerpt through the internet. You can become orthodox without these people, but it will feel harder and take longer. The education of the everyday is the hardest to learn. That's what I try to do here, but nothing can replace the advice and guidance of people who know you.


  1. I am an FFb and am struggling with putting up with all the garbage in the orthodox world you are a mentor of sorts to me on how to wade through ortho craziness in a sane manner
    Thank you for your excellent posts

    1. I'm sorry you're in such a position! It doesn't have to be that way, regardless of what most of our communities say. I'm nothing special, but I'm glad you find some value in what I say :) Stay intellectually honest and questioning because I think that's part of who Gd made us to be. If I can ever help or you just want a open-minded friend, get in touch.