The stress index of working rabbis exceeds that of Vietnam veterans or people who lived close to the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in the aftermath of the accident there, a clinical psychologist told a national gathering of Orthodox rabbis in Baltimore this week.

Leslie Freedman of the City University of New York also warned that the demoralization of the rabbinate poses a threat to the future of the Jewish community.

Freedman, who is also a clinical instructor at the New York University Medical School, told the Rabbinical Council of America that half of the 325 Orthodox rabbis responding to a detailed questionnaire said their work was "moderately stressful." One in five -- 20 percent -- rated the role as "a little stressful," while 26.4 percent called it "very stressful," Freedman said.

Only 3.2 said their work was "not stressful."

"Psychological factors such as low self-esteem, feeling of inadequacy in job performance, and general job dissatisfaction determine demoralization levels," Freedman told the rabbis attending the annual council meeting.

He said that family relationships, "especially marital dissatisfaction," compound the problem.

Some of the factors making for stress are "built into the contemporary rabbi's role," the psychologist said.

Rabbis "are trained as experts in Jewish law and tradition and identify themselves as scholars, but their congregations and the Jewish community see them primarily as teachers of children and officiants at bar and bat mitzvahs, marriages and funerals.

"As symbols of moral rectitude and exemplars of Jewish living, the rabbi and his family live in a fishbowl," he continued. Rabbis tend to be "socially isolated, regarded as being 'too good' for normal social discourse yet, as paid employes of the congregation , not good enough to socialize with."

The shifting "locus of power" and authority in the Jewish community in the past 20 years from the rabbi to local and national Jewish organizations "led by wealthy laymen" has been another contributing factor to the stress buildup, Freedman said.

Data for the report came from a detailed questionnaire on more than 250 items sent a year ago to the 750 Orthodox rabbi-members of the Rabbinical Council of America. The response of half those polled is considered well above average, considering the length and detail of the questionnaire.

While the immediate study concentrated on Orthodox rabbis, Freedman said his work with Reform and Conservative leaders over the past six years convinced him that they share the same stress ratings.

The psychologist warned the rabbis' convention that the crisis in the rabbinate reflected in the study "poses a real danger to Jewish survival. The rabbi is the Jews' only certain champion in the fight against assimilation. A demoralized rabbi is an unreliable symbol of the security Jewish religious tradition offers.

"Since the rabbinate is the trustee of Judaism's legitimate continuity over time, its disarray is a testament to the conflicts of the whole Jewish community," he said.