He began the political season as the "house rabbi" for Maryland gubernatorial candidate Theodore G. Venetoulis, organizing "Ecumenical Clergy for Venetoulis" and escorting the candidate and his wife to numerous synagogue meetings and Israeli bond dinners.
Then, he popped up in Andrew P. Miller's campaign for the U.S. Senate in Virginia, following him to the Virginia Democratic convention for "moral support" and telephoning Jewish political contributors in Florida and Maryland on the candidate's behalf.
Rabbi David Z. Ben-Ami calls himself a "political rabbi-at-large," a spiritual leader without a congregation who prefers to minister from the political soapbox rather than the pulpit.
"To be truly spiritual, you have to take an active role in politics," said Ben-Ami, who also worked in President Carter's 1972 campaign. "You have a help people who put ethical values first. Otherwise, the whole process becomes self-defeating."
But he admits his goals in the current Maryland and Virginia campaigns are at least as practical as they are philosophical. After 20 years on the political cutting edge, going from movement to movement, he says he is now ready for "a decent-paying government job."
His political work has paid off in the past. For helping Carter, he was given a 5-month job as confidential assistant to Administrator of Veterans Affairs Max Cleland. His appointment was not extended after he completed a study on drug abuse.
"I'm not looking for patronage," he insisted. "There's nothing put down in writing. This is just a gentlemen's understanding. I helped you, you help me."
For all of his secular political experience. Ben-Ami has never obtained all the credentials that generally give Reform rabbis, like him, full status among their peers.
He was turned down for admission to the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the prestigious professional organization for the nation's reform rabbinate, which places rabbis in synagogues and helps monitor their relations with congregations, according to that organization's records.
He was ordained by a now-defunct rabbinical seminary in New York, whose academic standards were considered too low for its graduates to automatically win admission to the Central Conference without the additional requirement of five years in the Reform movement and an examination, according to Rabbi Elliot Stevens, the conference's administrative secretary.
He has been associated with five synagogues, but his longest fulltime rabbinical stint was 3 1/2 years. He was asked to leave his last job at a Camp Hill, Pa., synagogue after the congregation decided it was not satisfied with his leadership, according to his successor at the synagogue.
Among most rabbis, membership in the conference is a critical credential. "It acts as a screening agency," explained a Baltimore rabbi. "If you're not a member, you are often not treated as a first class citizen by your peers. It indicates something is wrong."
"Jews are susceptible to titles," said the rabbi, who knows of Ben-Ami. "They think [Ben-Ami] is like every other rabbi who belongs to an organization and graduated from an accredited school. They don't know he's in it for the patronage."
Ben-Ami says that membership in the conference would just create a lot of extra baggage. He said he never reapplied for admission because such groups don't allow you to be innovative. If you don't dance to the tune, they throw you to the wolves."
I'm too much of a mayerick for the rabbinate," added the 53-year-old rabbi.
Ben-Ami, who helped register black voters in the South and worked in New York campaigns, said "lay people could care less" if he belonged to the conference. The lack of "this union card," he said, does not impair his volunteer work for Miller and baltimore County Executive Venetoulis.
He has appeared at about 20 affairs on behalf of Venetoulis, he said. At a recent Israeli bond dinner, the yarmulke-capped Ben-Ami squired around the candidate's wife, Eleni Venetoulis, introducing her to the wealthy guests as "the next first lady of Maryland."
"His credentials just never concerned me," said Venetoulis' campaign manager, Jackie Smelkinson. "We met him during the Carter campaign and he seemed to be a religious person with some occupation in religion.I don't think he misleads anyone by not having impeccable credentials."
Ben-Ami began volunteering his services to the Miller campaign about two months ago after meeting the candidate for dinner in Alexandria. His sole task thus far, he said, has been calling "Jewish philanthropists" in Florida and Maryland and asking them to contribute money to Miller, the former Virginia attorney general.
Linda Hennessee, Miller's finance coordinator, said Ben-Ami has referred her to a few prospects. But she added his role "is no more significant than an auto dealer from New Jersey who says he has a friend we should call. I just don't see how his status as a rabbi as applicable."