Stress Among American Orthodox Rabbis
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Stress Among American Orthodox Rabbis

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American Orthodox rabbis suffer chronic, role-related stress on a daily basis, according to the findings of a year long study of Orthodox rabbis by Dr. Leslie Freedman, a clinical psychologist associated with the City University of New York.

“And rabbis overall report greater distress than that measured in recent studies of Vietnam veterans, long term clients of a community mental health center, and residents living close to the three Mile Island nuclear reactor in the immediate aftermath of the accident,” said Freedman.

Freedman, a clinical associate in the Doctoral Training Program in Clinical Psychology at CUNY and a clinical instructor in the New York University Medical School, disclosed his findings Monday at the opening session of the 50th convention of the Rabbinical Council of America, the major Orthodox rabbinic group. The convention concludes Thursday at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel here.

Freedman has studied stress among rabbis for the past six years, and has received the cooperation in his research of some 60 percent of active Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis. Freedman found no difference between the four denominational groups in the amount of stress reported nor do differences in income and age affect the data. But he added, “Rabbis certainly find their work stressful.”

Addressing several hundred delegates attending the RCA conclave, Freedman said only 3.2 percent of this sample responded that their work is “not stressful” and another 20 percent answered a “little stressful.” Over a quarter — 26.4 percent — responded in the study that they experienced their work as “very stressful.” That figure, Freedman said, “is very high.”

“Psychological factors such as low self esteem, feelings of inadequacy in job performance, and general job dissatisfaction determine demoralization levels,” Freedman said. “Family relations, especially marital dissatisfaction, also contribute to rabbinic stress. These frequently translate into more socially acceptable physical symptoms that ironically, intensify the distress.”

According to Freedman, “rabbis are trained as experts in Jewish law and tradition and identify themselves as scholars….As symbols of moral rectitude and exemplars of Jewish living, the rabbi and his family live in a fish-bowl. They are socially isolated, regarded as being ‘too good’ for normal social discourse yet, as paid employes of the community, not good enough to socialize with.”


Freedman also said he felt that many men may not be going into the congregational pulpit because of stress inherent in the role of the rabbi. “Rabbis do not necessarily need therapy,” continued Freedman.

“The data shows that stress is built into the nature of the rabbinic role. In order for rabbis to better manage their roles, a clearer understanding on the part of the rabbi of his role and its inherent conflicts is necessary.”

Freedman’s conclusions were based on the findings of an independent nationwide survey conducted in the Spring of 1985 among the 750 Orthodox rabbis who are members of the Rabbinical Council of America and who reside in the United States. The questionnaire contained over 250 items, in four areas of interest.

A total of 325 completed questionnaires were returned, Freedman said. The survey, Freedman noted, was carefully designed to provide total anonymity and confidentiality to the participants. “It was never possible to identify a questionnaire as that of a given rabbi,” he said.

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