David Bluman never expected to get rich by entering rabbinical school, but he figured his career choice offered one thing hard to get in these recessionary days: job security.

However, the recently ordained graduate of Bel Air's American Jewish University has been seeking employment at a temple since March without any luck.
Now, like many college graduates who can't find a job, he's swallowed his pride and accepted some financial help from his parents while living off what's left of his student loans.

"It's really affecting my life," said the 28-year-old rabbi, who's landed only one job interview and is now broadening his search to rabbinical positions outside temples. "The deans of my school say it's too early to give up."

Newspapers and television broadcasts each day chronicle the plight of unemployed workers as companies, besieged by falling profits, lay off portions of their work forces. Less well known is the fate of the nation's clergy, many of whom also have been rocked by the economic storm.

Like all non-profits, religious institutions of every stripe which sustain themselves mostly through memberships and contributions have experienced major downturns in giving that have sometimes forced reductions of their staffs.

Some synagogues, educational and other Jewish organizations have laid off associate rabbis and only kept their senior clergy. Others have refrained from hiring new ones. In some cases, there are synagogues doing without a full-time rabbi and being served instead by part-timers; lay leaders; or often lower-paid cantors, who are ordained and trained to lead services.

The situation is more acute at synagogues than in Roman Catholic churches, which are experiencing a shortage of priests, or in Protestant churches, which often are bigger than synagogues. In addition, temples require members to pay annual dues that can range from about $500 to $3,000. So when times are tough, donations and memberships can drop sharply.

Temple Ramat Zion is a Northridge synagogue that has seen its membership shrink from 470 families two years ago to about 400 now. A few months ago, the temple let go of its only rabbi, and services are being led by a cantor and visiting rabbis.

"People are hurting and the first thing they cut is their donations," said temple President Barbara Leyner. "We have taken steps because of the situation and done a great deal to tighten our belt. We've looked at our various expenses wherever we could."

Service industry

In some ways, it's not at all surprising that rabbis would have a hard time finding employment during the recession. They are essentially in a service industry in which personnel costs account for the largest portion of temple budgets, which range from about $250,000 to $2.5 million annually with a few having budgets approaching or exceeding $10 million.

Compensation for rabbis working full time in synagogues spans from $75,000 or so a year without benefits at the smallest temples to more than $200,000 with full health care, pension, vacation and other benefits at larger ones.

The L.A.-based Board of Rabbis of Southern California conducted a survey of its membership late last year and at least half reported declines in their congregations' incomes from membership and donations of 10 percent or more.

The western district of the Union of Reform Judaism, an umbrella organization representing 180 reform congregations in the western United States and Canada including 20 in Los Angeles County, reported that its projected 2009 income had declined from $25 million to $20 million.

"Hardly a day goes by that I don't have unemployed rabbis in my office and on the phone," said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis, which represents more than 300 Jewish clergy from San Diego to San Luis Obispo. "For the first time ever I have virtually nothing to offer."

The shortage of positions is especially obvious among the city's class of newly graduated rabbis for whom, until recently, unemployment had been virtually unknown and that's after five or six years of schooling and usually more than $100,000 in student loans.

The new rabbis often find themselves competing against veterans, who like many Americans, are faced with dwindling retirement accounts. Thus many older rabbis have stayed in positions that otherwise might be available to their young colleagues fresh out of school.

The Academy for Jewish Religion in Westwood, for instance, historically places at least 90 percent of its graduating seniors in permanent positions before they are even ordained. This year, however, only six of the academy's 10 newly minted rabbis have found work since graduating in May.

"It's a challenging year. Synagogues have had to reduce the number they hire and, in some cases, lay off professionals. It's a tough market out there," said Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, the academy's president.

The story is similar at the city's two other rabbinical schools, each of which has placed only about 80 percent of its grads. One of them, Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, recently graduated 15 rabbis. Director Dr. Dvora Weisberg has begun suggesting alternatives.

"It's very discouraging to go to school for five years believing there will be plenty of jobs and then when you're finished finding out that it's just not the case," Weisberg said. "We are encouraging students to consider a broader range of options including chaplaincies in the military, prisons or at schools."

In a state and nation hard hit by the recession, however, even those jobs aren't safe.

Rabbi Daniel Mehlman serves a small congregation called Beth Meier in Studio City. To help make ends meet and, importantly, get health insurance for his wife and two children, he spends 20 hours a week ministering to Jewish inmates at North Kern State Prison 130 miles to the north.

Recently Mehlman was informed that the prison position may soon be eliminated.

"It's very worrisome," the 50-year-old rabbi said. "The congregation will have to come up with a solution for health coverage, which will be a hardship for them."

Rabbi Leslie Bergson also thought she was providing for the future when she left a 13-year position as university chaplain at the Claremont Colleges to be closer to her family in New York. In her new post as special projects coordinator for the American Jewish Committee, she expected to have a hand in shaping domestic and religious affairs.

The gig lasted exactly six months before being eliminated as part of a downsizing forced by the recession. And now Bergson, 57, is back in Glendale frantically searching for a job.

"It's a little strange to be sitting at home wearing jeans in the middle of a workday," she said. "I haven't had any interviews yet; for rabbis it's a very tough time."

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