“I’ve been volunteering for Mavar, as a mentor, for around a year. I first got in touch with the charity having watched the Netflix documentary One of Us – about three members of the New York Haredi community and their struggles to leave and forge new lives for themselves (otherwise known as going off the derech). As a secular Jew with distant family members in the UK Haredi community, I was both intrigued and deeply moved by this documentary. I looked up the charity that helped the filmmakers to gain access and then discovered that there was an English equivalent.
For the first few months after being taken on as a mentor at Mavar, I felt it was important to get a feel for the charity. I attended meetings and training sessions, and slowly got to grips with the often complex needs of the members who require our services. During this period I learned a huge amount – about Haredi life and its benefits, as well as the difficulties faced by those who wish to live another way; and about what life for them might be like once they’ve chosen to go on this path. I’ve been consistently moved both by the stories of Mavar members and ex-members who have attended our group sessions and by the stories of what Mavar has done for them.
My first mentee
I was assigned my first mentee earlier this summer. His needs were fairly straightforward: he wished to go to university and wanted advice and help with his application. In his mid-twenties, he has no formal qualifications (not a single GCSE) and only learned English as a second language later in life, despite being a Londoner. A hugely bright self-starter, he taught himself computer programming at the local library, and has read widely in other areas, including astrophysics (it was Richard Dawkins, he says, who originally turned him away from organised religion). He has recently gone off the derech quite openly, having shaved off his peyot; he dressed informally to our meetings. He showed me a picture of himself in full Hasidic garb: “This was me three months ago”. He described frustration about having been “denied” a proper education. He was raring to go to redress this.
My role as a mentor
My role as a mentor is to respond to the needs of any given mentee and to try to guide them in the right direction. Mavar has many specialists – in areas from education and law to housing, employment and mental health – and I see part of my role as being a point person, putting any mentee in touch with the right specialist, or garnering the right information for them. I’m also there to talk, to reassure when necessary and to provide practical advice; in the most simple sense to be a friend from outside the community. As a mentor I may be one of the very few people from the “outside” world to be in personal touch with any given mentee, and one of the few (in some cases the only) person who they can talk to about their often bewildering and daunting new journey. It’s a big responsibility – which is why it’s important to be both available and boundaried. As crucial as friendship is, there’s also a natural imbalance in any relationship between a mentor and mentee, and it’s necessary to respect this.
My mentee primarily needed help deciding on a course. We chatted about his options, which gave us the opportunity to discuss his wider reasons for wanting to go to university, what he hoped to get out of it, what he hoped to do next and what he hoped to get out of his new life more generally. There was a “first principles” element to these conversations: at this stage in his life he really can decide on a huge variety of options and it felt vital to help him to decide on the right one for him and not to get stuck in a corner. In this case, he was extremely focused and it didn’t take much for him to decide on a relevant course and university. I then helped him to fill in his UCAS form (also with the assistance of one of Mavar’s education specialists) and to word his personal statement. Having never written anything like this before, he was initially very daunted by this prospect, but I asked him leading questions and helped him to craft his responses into something cohesive. We met three times during this process.
My mentee has now applied to and been accepted on a university course, and cannot wait to get going. This feels like a huge achievement. That such a talented individual has never had the opportunity to study something he believes in, and that he has now been given that opportunity, is something of tremendous value. I felt honoured and moved to be a tiny part in that process. My mentee was hugely grateful to Mavar for giving him the confidence to make this leap and for providing the assistance he needed to get his application over the line.
What happens next
I’ll stay in touch with my mentee for as long as he wishes me to, checking in on how his course is going and reminding him of our other services. At this stage, his focus remains on starting university, but it’s possible that other needs will arise as he begins to get to grips with life outside the Haredi world. Should this be the case, Mavar will always be there for him.”