"Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God" (Ruth 1:16)
You'll note that Ruth didn't bother asking Naomi where to find a good shul or rabbi, nor did she pop in with any questions about the difficulties of finding a congregation out in the middle of nowhere, right? So where to begin?
When I decided to start going to synagogue, I had already made the decision to convert. I knew all the details of the conversion process and had read most of the popularized conversion books (after all, I'd been studying on my own for about a year). So really, I was jumping way ahead of myself and needed to find a shul. In my town there were two synagogues -- one Reform, the other Conservative. About an hour away there was a much larger city with various congregations ranging from Chabad to Reform. At the time, though, I hadn't considered going to the larger city because, well, I was carless and in college and it just wasn't something that struck me. Also at that time I was comfortably settled in the Reform movement with my hashkafah (sort of like Jewish philosophy/beliefs). A (Jewish) friend of a friend was also interested in checking out a local shul to see what the buzz was (considering the community was so small), so we agreed to go one Friday night. She picked me up, we were off, and we were welcomed heartily by the community. We started going regularly, and after awhile we decided to check out the Conservative shul to see whether we were leaning that way. Unfortunately, that congregation didn't welcome us as heartily, as the base was a lot older and didn't seem interested in talking to, let alone welcoming, us.
So, at the time -- as I said -- my hashkafah was good with the Reform movement and so I continued to go there. The rabbi at that point was a woman who, to be honest, didn't seem so interested in getting started with a conversion candidate (she was sort of on the outs, as her family had moved to a city about three hours away and she was trying to get out, too), but we met at a coffee shop, she gave me a booklist to check out and we called it a day. Shortly after she left a new rabbi was hired and he was incredibly enthusiastic about the congregation and my conversion -- I would be his first convert! He started up an Intro to Judaism course (which was mostly a refresher for me at that point), and very quickly we set a date for my conversion because, after talking to me and hearing about my studies and journey, he seemed confident I was prepared. But most importantly, it was I who was prepared. In April 2006, then, I met with the beth din, went to the mikvah, had my naming and conversion ceremony, and the rest is history. This all, of course, was through the Reform movement.
Now, I wasn't turned away three times or any of that. It's more likely that in the Orthodox movement this will happen, and it's also more likely that you'll really need to search for a rabbi who fits into your stream of thought and who welcomes you and your conversion in his community. As I consider reconverting through the Orthodox movement, I'll admit, there is a lot more thought that will go into the process -- who my rabbi is, how long I'll need to prepare, what congregation/community to attach myself to, etc. When I started dabbling in the path to conversion in ... oy ... was it 2003? (though formally much later) ... I didn't really do much searching because I was pretty comfortable in where I was, but it was very situationally comfortable.
What do I mean? Well, I was in college (undergraduate) and there was not a possibility for me to move (at least, at that time, it hadn't even crossed my mind). Had I wanted to convert Orthodox (though, to be honest, in the community I was in I had a LOT of misconceptions about Orthodox Jews and the Orthodox community in general), I would have been put in an interesting position. I would have had to make my way to the closest city with an Orthodox community, but even then, it would have been difficult to make the trips. And once again -- it all depends on your hashkafah. For some people who do want to convert Orthodox, though, it just isn't feasible to get to a community where you can attend services regularly, find kosher foods, not to mention visit the mikvah and take part in other community activities. So what an Orthodox rabbi will tell you is -- you must move to a community. It's a lifestyle, it's a community, it's not just a religious doctrine. But for people with families or who are committed to a location, this just isn't possible. So then they will tell you that we must bend to the Torah -- the Torah will not bend to us. And in a way, they are right. So what do you do?
Well, my advice is this: If you live in the sticks or in a community where there isn't a shul, find the nearest one, no matter the denomination, and begin to learn. Explain to the rabbi that you are interested in converting, though you're not sure whether the shul's hashkafah lines up with your's, but that you want to begin or explore your options. Attend Intro to Judaism and Hebrew classes (or find a tutor or use online resources). Learn, learn, learn and learn some more, and when you feel yourself coming to a place where you are confident in converting, talk to your rabbi. Explain to them where you are at, which movement you feel most comfortable halakicly in, ask the rabbi if they can connect you with other rabbis in other movements. When you travel, go to different shuls -- Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform. You have to have that exposure in order to make an informed decision about a movement as a whole. But your Jewish soul will lead you in the appropriate direction, and no matter how you feel spiritually or where you connect denominationally, you can observe how ever much or little that you want in your personal life. Don't forget, though, that community is important! And also, use the internet. This big, bad wide interweb is your KEY to really discovering where you fit Jewishly -- but don't trust just one website or one source, because you truly never know what you'll get. Ask questions, ask a LOT of questions, and do your homework.
Remember: Judaism is sort of a package deal -- communally, personally, religiously, and how you live -- you can't learn, study, and convert in a vacuum. It's as simple as "where there is a will, there is a way." And your Jewish soul will not let you sleep until it is sated!
So check out this website: My Jewish Learning on Choosing a Synagogue. I really, really wish I had had this all those years ago. It offers some great advice, especially about the differences simply between synagogues within the same movement. For example, I prefer a shul without a chazzan, or cantor, because I find that the congregants do an amazing job with a melody (I think this sentiment comes from attending a modern Orthodox shul for those many months!). Likewise, you can tell a lot about a synagogue from what kind of programs it has -- women's groups, social action, outreach, etc. But perhaps most importantly is making sure that YOU and the RABBI fit. You want to convert through someone you trust, someone who takes you as seriously as you take them, and who can answer your questions and inquiries without any troubles. Plus, it is important to develop a good, working relationship with a rabbi at any rate because questions will always come up -- about Yom Kippur or kashrut or something else -- and you will need someone authoritative and consistent (we call this person a rav) in your life to help you answer such queries!
But, that's my reader's digest bit on finding a synagogue/rabbi and how to do so if you're in a community that maybe lacks such things. Now, I have a lot of connections and know a lot of people, not to mention I am presently inventorying all of the shuls in the U.S. for a Jewish databank, so if you need some information or want to be introduced to a rabbi, let me know and I'll do what I can to help you out. I might not know everyone, but an intermediary can help get the ball rolling!
I might have created more questions than answers, so let me know what you you have to say. I attempted to be brief, but I want to reiterate that the Jewish conversion process is not meant to be quick -- it is meant to allow the convert time to evaluate and reevaluate their Jewish soul, to consider where they fit and when they are truly, truly ready to take on the plight of the Jewish people. There is no need to rush -- some people spend years, dozens of years at times, on the path, waiting to hit that point or find the right rabbi or congregation. Don't rush it just because you want to get there -- it just isn't worth skirting the major issues for a quickie conversion. Plus, a good rabbi won't let you get by like that either :)
If you click here, I have compiled a list of websites with information that might be useful to you -- just now, actually, so this list will continue to grow in coming days/weeks. Enjoy and Shalom!