At 9 p.m. on the fourth night of Chanukah, Nicole Butler is driving the now-familiar route through Westchester, the Bronx, then over the Triborough Bridge into Astoria, Queens. She is in a good mood.
Today’s work went smoothly. She led two seventh-grade discussions on the differences between Reform and Orthodox Judaism, facilitated a Jewish version of "Family Feud" at the high school Chanukah party and ended the workday stuffing envelopes and chatting about boys with Woodlands Community Temple Youth’s (WCTY) highly-caffeinated teen leaders: cell phone-toting girls who sport cropped shirts and low-rise jeans and want to design official youth group sweatshirts that say "Wicked Hot."
For the first time since the school year began, Butler, a 23-year-old youth director and congregational school teacher, feels like her work is under control and has some time to herself, even if it is late at night when most people are sleeping.
To most people, the life of Butler (an energetic young woman with long red hair, a silver nose ring, and a predilection for offbeat clothes and lots of jewelry) would not seem settled. A year and a half out of college, she is juggling three part-time jobs at Reform temples. Her work schedule is chock full of night and weekend duties, and (with jobs in the Bronx, mid-Westchester and the northeast edge of Westchester) she is frequently on the road. Even socializing requires a commute, since she lives in Queens and has friends and family scattered throughout the New York area; her aspiring rock musician boyfriend lives with his parents on Long Island.
Nonetheless, after almost two years of being constantly on the move, Butler has finally settled down into her own apartment. She is starting to write poetry again, something she did a lot as an English and creative writing major at SUNY-Binghamton, but had lacked the emotional energy for since her senior year. And her jobs are becoming more manageable.
"I now have grounding: more things are falling into place," she says, noting that she is learning how to work more efficiently, knows how things function at Woodlands (her primary job) and is starting to develop contacts to work with on developing community service projects and other youth activities.
Just a month earlier, Butler’s outlook on a Friday night drive home from Woodlands was less upbeat. It was one of the first really cold nights of the fall, and she was returning from a disappointing and difficult-to-control youth program for rowdy 10- and 11-year-olds.
Having spent days crafting an elaborate mystery game for the kids, she was annoyed with herself for taking on such a labor-intensive activity: one that gave her less time to spend on logistics and forced her to run around tying up loose ends at the last minute.
"That was my choice, which I wish I hadn’t made. I thought it would take just two hours. But I had already done the publicity and was stuck with it," she said.
On the plus side, once a disruptive boy was sent home and the game was in full swing, most of the kids seemed to enjoy themselves. The role-playing game included extensive character descriptions and lists of clues to help the kids solve the mystery of who had supposedly absconded with several containers of ice cream.
But the adult volunteers who had helped chaperone the event seemed uninterested in the game’s nuances and more focused on the pitfalls of the evening as they debriefed outside in the dark parking lot at the end of the night with Butler. Too long, too chaotic, too many kids.
As for Butler’s idea for the next activity for this age group (a bowling trip) the adults were skeptical, sharing memories of disastrous bowling trips when defiant children hung out together in the bathroom or disappeared into the parking lot rather than participating in the group activity.
The chaperones couched their criticisms with supportive remarks, but in the car home that night, she felt exhausted and dispirited. "I was hoping the parents would notice how intricate" the game was, she said, clearly disappointed that no one had praised her for the work (and creativity) she’d invested in the activity.
The fact that she was missing a friend’s birthday party did not help matters. Nor did a synagogue member’s attempt to guilt trip her as she left: he wanted her to stay late so he could wait inside for the towing company to pick up his broken-down car.
Getting onto the Sprain Brook Parkway that Friday night, she realized she’d forgotten the materials she had meant to bring with her for a program the next day: meeting youth group members in Manhattan for a havdalah service in Central Park. Loath to turn back, she wondered whether she could find havdalah candles for sale on Shabbat.
That night, Butler envied her peers in other professions, who had more standardized hours and duties: and got health insurance. With her mother’s benefit plan slated to boot her off at the end of December, now that she was officially too old to be a dependent, Butler was feeling increasingly concerned about the fact that she received no health insurance benefits.
In August, as she was starting her job, she’d brushed that problem aside, figuring she might be able to persuade Woodlands to offer her insurance as the year progressed. Also, before the reality of taxes, commuting expenses and the high cost of insurance premiums kicked in, money seemed less important.
"I feel like the fact that I’m making as much money as I’m making and, to be honest, having a really good time doing what I’m doing, it’s so cool anyway that I’ll just pay for my own health care," she said this summer, referring to her combined and benefit-free earnings of less than $40,000. "You’ve got to trade something in for having fun."
While in the month between early November and the fourth night of Chanukah, Butler’s life has improved in many ways, health insurance remains a frustration. At the suggestion of temple leaders, she contacted the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York and the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations in hopes they could offer help: they could not.
Butler works considerably more than 40 hours a week for the Jewish community but is caught in a loophole: because no one institution employs her full-time, she is ineligible for benefits.
Butler is hardly alone. It is common knowledge, and believed to be a major cause of burnout and turnover, that few American youth workers or Hebrew school teachers receive health benefits, says Joe Reimer. Reimer directs the Brandeis University-based Institute for Informal Jewish Education, a three-year-old program that, among other things, offers training seminars for youth directors.
The absence of benefits "unfortunately communicates to young people something about the seriousness or lack of seriousness of the work they do," Reimer says.
"There’s a sense that this can’t possibly be a serious job because it doesn’t have the usual accoutrements of a serious job," he adds.
Because few synagogues have the resources to offer benefits, some Jewish federations (most notably in Boston, Baltimore and Kansas City) are starting to develop a community-wide approach to their youth programs, Reimer says. In Boston, for example, the federation provides funding to synagogues so that they can create full-time positions (with benefits) for youth workers.
While New York lacks a comprehensive program like that, UJA-Federation of New York’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal created a new category of challenge grants this year for efforts to elevate the status of Jewish youth professionals. Rabbi Deborah Joselow, managing director of COJIR, said the agency is inviting Jewish institutions to apply for challenge grants to fund salaries, benefits and professional training for youth workers. However, only about four institutions, a tiny fraction of those with youth directors, are expected to receive the first round of grants.
Even if Woodlands is eligible for such a grant, it won’t come in time to help Butler. But, midway through December, she does manage to work out a compromise with her employer. They agree to pay a portion of the cost for her to continue on her mother’s plan. And they promise to re-open the discussion this summer, when her contract comes up for renewal.
"I feel like they’ve been really responsive," Butler reports, although she acknowledges when asked that she will still have to pay more than half the insurance premium.
As she writes the check to the insurance company, she may have to console herself with her idealism from the hot August day a few months ago when, cooling down in an Upper West Side Starbucks, she pronounced that she would rather have a meaningful job than a lucrative one.
"If you’re spending all your time crunching numbers or something like that, how is that called living?" she asked. "To me, working with people and helping a person understand who they are in the universe on such a deeper level than just how to make money is the greatest mitzvah you can do for people."