Challenges of mentoring

It was a book that prompted me to join Mavar: All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen, a beautifully written, deeply moving account of his journey from the Haredi to the secular world.  It details just what was gained and also what was lost along the way. This book made a huge impression on me and, if you haven’t read it already, I urge you to do so.  You too might then be tempted to join or donate to Mavar.

Shulem’s Book

I grew up in a small provincial Jewish community, and though we played an active part in communal life my family was relatively secular, so I came to Mavar knowing very little about the Haredi world.  Indeed, although I was full of enthusiasm, when it came to actually meeting a potential mentee for the first time I was a little apprehensive. 

We settled on a fairly busy meeting place and I began to worry that I should have asked her to carry something identifiable so that I would recognise her.  Of course, my anxiety was completely unfounded.  Someone who is still living in the Haredi community is instantly recognisable in the outside world because of the way that they dress.

She was the first of the two people that I have mentored.  This pair could not have been more different.  One was already highly motivated and well educated and the other had received virtually no secular education and was completely unfocused.  One still relished the absolute minutiae of Jewish practise and Shabbat observance; the other felt oppressed by the goldfish bowl that is Stamford Hill and was struggling to work out where he stood in terms of observance.  In the course of the time that I have been seeing them, they have both received help from the various specialists that Mavar can call upon.

Mentoring has not always been easy. In my professional life I was used to leading a large team, giving that team clear directions and expecting them to be followed.  However, that’s not mentoring.  I have had to work very hard to stop myself from saying ‘this is what you should do’, when a solution seems blindingly obvious to me and to stop myself from expressing irritation when someone does something, or makes a decision that I think is misguided.

I must admit to one abject failure in this respect.  A mentee told me something about the Haredi working world that pricked my social conscience. ‘But that’s not fair’ escaped me before I could stop myself.  However, this was a relatively minor transgression and one that my mentee seemed to find amusing, even naïve, and thankfully it didn’t damage our relationship in any way.  It actually initiated questioning about my working life. Mentees are usually fascinated by the way more integrated Jewish family life works.

I have been mentoring the same young man for a few years.  We meet regularly and now speak seriously and frankly about his situation and about a way forward for him.  We also laugh together.   We laugh a lot.

It was not always like this. Our first couple of meetings were far from easy.

His English was poor.  Our language barrier was a very real problem and so too was his diffidence.  It was extremely difficult for him to express himself clearly in English and even more difficult for him to lift his head and look at me while we were speaking.

Trust is something that is hard won and it took a few meetings before he could relax and accept that Mavar has no nefarious ulterior motive.

Fast forward a couple of years and so much has changed. He has grown in confidence enormously and is absolutely relaxed with me. He has worked hard to improve his English and gain a basic secular education.  He has even supplemented his formal studies with a great deal of independent learning. 

He has now chosen his future career path.  This is no small achievement for someone for whom exercising choice was an alien concept and I am so very proud of him.

As mentors we have to allow our mentees to work things out for themselves, to make their own decisions. This was brought home to me most forcibly when I asked my mentee what sort of life he wanted for his children.  His answer was immediate.  It came back at me like a shot from a gun.  “I want them to have choice”.