Teaching On Overdrive


It’s 5:30 on a Monday evening and Nicole Butler is trying valiantly to keep 10 suburban 12-year-olds — eight of them boys — focused on a discussion about tzedaka.

“So how do you feel when you go into the city and someone asks you for money?” she asks for the second time, eager to get through the preliminary material so she can get the class started on an activity.

Seated at three low tables designed for younger children in a classroom at Woodlands Community Temple in Greenburgh, N.Y., several boys compete to see who can shoot his pencil higher into the air. Another boy, who insists on being called “Silent Bob,” tries to hypnotize classmates on either side of him by swinging a black watch back and forth.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, a slightly pouty girl periodically consults her watch and announces to anyone who will listen how many minutes are left in class.

Less than an hour earlier, the exact same lesson plan yielded completely different results in this freshly painted classroom with a brand-new chalkboard. The first class of seventh-graders eagerly shared stories about times they gave money to homeless people. These bar mitzvah-year kids oohed and aahed over the slips of paper Butler passed out assigning each of them a part to play, and they had clamored to offer suggestions as to the best way each player could contribute to tzedaka.

For Butler, an energetic 23-year-old working full-time in Jewish education for the first time this year, it was another reminder that lesson plans — which she is becoming more and more proficient in designing — can only determine so much. Instead, she is constantly struggling to keep her restless students on track, and often finds herself having to improvise and shift directions.

Only a year out of college, with a degree in English and a dream of one day writing a novel, Butler is not yet sure what she wants to do with her life. In the meantime, she is teaching in what is generally agreed to be the most challenging — and least respected — venue of Jewish education: part-time Hebrew, or congregational, schools.

Last year, still revved up from a semester at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Butler visited her childhood Hebrew school principal at Rye Community Synagogue in Westchester County, where she had worked as an assistant teacher in her teen years. Soon she was working there part-time and word got around among Westchester’s Reform temples that a bright young woman — who sports a silver nose ring, has a preference for gauzy and tie-dyed clothing and laces her speech

with “like” and “dude” — was available to teach. A flurry of part-time job offers ensued.

“I was basically known all over Westchester,” Butler said in an interview this summer. “They’d call me from here, there and everywhere. Every school was like, ‘Oh my God, a new young teacher — that’s the best thing I’ve ever heard.’ ”

With few people entering Jewish education, and those who do generally opting for day-school jobs, administrative positions and other more stable and more lucrative work, there are usually more Hebrew school teachers needed than qualified candidates. And young candidates, who many religious school directors hope will be better able to engage the kids, are a rarity, particularly in the suburbs far from Manhattan’s colleges and Jewish seminaries.

Butler knows her enthusiasm and youth are a big part of her appeal. But she worries at times that her Jewish knowledge — gained primarily through her own Hebrew school education, Jewish camp experiences and her semester in Jerusalem — is inadequate.

“I feel like I should have gone to a Jewish day school,” she said this summer. “I don’t feel like I’ve had enough time with the material to know everything I need to know to be able to answer every question that they ask me.”

She comforts herself with the fact that “No one knows everything they need to know and everybody has books to look up answers — that’s what books and rabbis are for.”

“It’s so much more the energy you put out to the class than the actual material,” she adds. “Judaism as religion, it’s not a subject, it’s a spiritual feeling. If you can share that feeling with kids, then they’re going to get that feeling back and they’re going to want to come back. That’s what the goal is, to spark an interest in them.”

This year, Butler is working almost full time at Woodlands, where she is the youth director and teaches seventh grade and high school classes. To help make ends meet, Butler also teaches seventh grade once a week at Riverdale Temple in the Bronx (a job she held last year as well), helps out one hour a week at Congregation Emanu-El’s nursery school in Rye and driving up to the Jewish Family Congregation in South Salem every other week to help with its youth programming.

She has no illusions about being in a high-status profession, and has agreed to participate in this Jewish Week series in the hopes that it might change perceptions of Jewish educators.

“Hebrew school teachers are completely seen as not really important people in the grand scheme of things,” she said. “You say you’re an English teacher and at least people are like, ‘Oh, you’re going to help my kid with the Regents.’ Because everything in this world has to have some kind of numerical value.

“But when you’re working in a religious setting and the thing you’re trying to teach them is culture or spirituality or figuring out who they are as people, that’s not measurable, it’s not a number.”

“That’s why you can pull your kid out early from Hebrew school to go to soccer practice,” Butler adds with a hint of bitterness. “Because you know that they can win a soccer game.”

With busy nights and weekends punctuated by quiet gaps in the daytime, Butler’s life is definitely not 9 to 5. The variety of jobs — and the fact that Butler’s boyfriend lives on Long Island and her friends are scattered throughout the New York metropolitan area — means she spends a lot of time behind the wheel of her ’96 Ford Taurus, its backseat strewn with snacks, books, clothing and random supplies.

Woodlands, Butler’s primary job, could be a case study in the Reform movement’s shift toward more informal, participatory prayer services. Unlike many “Classical Reform” temples, Woodlands has neither an organ nor a professional choir, and services take place in a glass-walled sanctuary overlooking the forest. In order to retain a sense of community, membership is limited to 400 households — many of whom are young families with children. The temple hosts frequent “shul-ins,” at which the children have a Friday-night sleepover in the sanctuary.

“They’re so chill,” Butler said this summer, admiring the congregation’s laid-back culture. “If you walk in in jeans and sandals on a Friday night it’s not a problem.”

This year, however, a massive renovation project has made the temple a bit less “chill.” In place of the sanctuary sits a huge construction pit dotted with a few metal beams. Until a few weeks ago, the offices and classrooms — which now smell of fresh paint and new carpet — also were off-limits, with employees shuttling from temporary location to temporary location.

The Monday afternoon she teaches about tzedaka is Butler’s first with her own office — a corner of the basement with a desk and some posters, but no computer or phone yet. Whenever Butler receives a phone call, Harriet Levine, the temple’s education director, calls down the basement stairs and Butler runs upstairs to take it. Laughing at the situation, Butler jokes, “OK, Mom, I’m coming up for dinner” at one point in the afternoon, before the students arrive.

The upheaval at the temple mirrors the upheaval in Butler’s personal life these days. For a few months she shared an apartment in Riverdale with two SUNY Binghamton alumni, but by September their personalities clashed and the living situation became unbearable. So she has been looking for a roommate and an apartment and living at her mother’s house in Rockland County.

This weekend she is moving to an apartment in Astoria, Queens — a neighborhood she has decided is better suited for recent college graduates than Riverdale or Westchester. She found her new roommate, a 22-year-old pastry chef, over the Internet.

Adding to the stress of having no office and no home for much of September and October, Butler was confused at first about what her job at Woodlands entailed.

She had never been a youth director before, and other than a vague notion that it was something like being a camp counselor, Butler was not sure what the day-to-day responsibilities would be. The rabbi who was supposed to supervise her was busy with the High Holy Days. She wasn’t sure which committee meetings she had to attend. On top of that, the position was new at Woodlands, so there were no precedents or former youth directors to consult.

“A person my age who hasn’t done this job before needs some direction. I’m brand new and they’re brand new at it and the combination is frustrating,” Butler complained in a phone conversation with The Jewish Week midway through September.

Without clear job guidelines, “How do I know they’re not walking all over me and how do I know if I’m not working hard enough?” she asked.

But by early October, things began to improve. With more teaching experience, Butler was finding it much easier to handle her seventh-graders at Riverdale than last year, when she was overwhelmed by behavior problems.

At Woodlands, Rabbi William Dreskin sat down with her to talk about the job. She met with her mentor — an experienced youth group director with whom the Board of Jewish Education has matched her. And she attended a daylong training session for youth directors run by the Reform movement’s North American Federation of Temple Youth.

Butler, who is used to speaking her mind, also got her first pointers in professional tact from Rabbi Dreskin. “Put on a happy face and don’t tell everyone everything,” the rabbi apparently advised her.

“I can see the value of that,” she conceded. “If one hour I speak with one person and I happen to be confused, then one person leaves with the feeling that everything is in shambles even if it’s not necessarily true, it was just one hour of being unsure.”

“That was helpful to me,” Butler adds. “He really stressed and reiterated that he and the cantor and Harriet the principal are really there for supporting me, which is really wonderful.”

Back in school on this October Monday, Butler finishes up with her second seventh-grade class. She has to send “Silent Bob” to the principal’s office, but manages to generate a fairly lively discussion about ways to contribute to tzedaka, and the difference between tzedaka and charity (tzedaka is an obligation for all times, not just when one is feeling generous).

After class, Butler runs downstairs to her office, where her computer has finally been set up (although it will later turn out not to work). In the next room, the high school kids — wearing varsity sweatshirts and Abercrombie and chatting about homecoming weekends — are eating pizza in the teen lounge in their social time before classes start.

Butler has a half-hour to eat before back-to-back high school classes she is teaching on Jewish folk tales. She grabs a slice of pizza, sits down and enjoys a few minutes in which she is neither teaching, lesson planning or driving.