Rabbi Jacob Pressman turns 94: A community treasure
For decades now, as Rabbi Jacob (Jack) Pressman celebrated a milestone birthday, there was a gala show and dinner starring Rabbi Jack and his myriad show-biz friends to manifest and celebrate the many talents and achievements of this extraordinary man. Five years ago, Temple Beth Am celebrated his 90th birthday when he turned 89, just in case.
“At my age you don’t buy green bananas,” the rabbi said, quoting his mentor, the late Rabbi Simon Greenberg. But the celebration week will be a quiet one, as Rabbi Jack and Marjorie Pressman’s son, Joel, is gravely ill, as all who read the Jewish Journal this past month learned — gravely, but bravely, ill, still celebrating the glories of life, family and friendship, students and colleagues, the majesty of nature, the joy of song, the gift of love.
But even at this most trying of times, Rabbi Jack’s 94th birthday warrants celebration.
In the circles I frequent as a university professor and a scholar, I know many men and women who are smart; far fewer who are wise. And Rabbi Jack is a wise man.
His role in the Los Angeles community is historic.
Born in Philadelphia in 1919, Jack was raised at Temple Beth Am in Philadelphia, where the rabbi took a great interest in the boy and brought him in to teach Hebrew school and to run youth services. Jack was paid very modestly for his services, but in the Depression era, every dime was worth its weight in gold, and thus his interest in the rabbinate was born. So, too, his interest in a certain woman two years his junior, Marjorie Steinberg, who later became his wife and his lifelong partner of by now more than 70 years.
A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Pressman came to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) just as the war began, and his rabbinic training was accelerated as the U.S. military needed chaplains, and the American rabbinate needed rabbis desperately, as young rabbis were going off to fight alongside their congregants. While still a student, Pressman served as acting rabbi of Forest Hills Jewish Center, whose own Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser was in the Army. He was instrumental in the design of the synagogue’s building, a massive structure on Queens Boulevard. Of particular interest is its ark, designed by noted artist and political satirist Arthur Szyk. Later, as Pressman was offered prestigious positions on the East Coast, JTS Chancellor Louis Finkelstein advised him to go West. Los Angeles, he said, would soon join New York and Palestine as the three great centers of Jewish life. Pressman never regretted heeding Finkelstein’s sagacious advice.
He went on to serve as assistant to Rabbi Jacob Cohen at Sinai Temple, and then, in 1950, he took over a small congregation then known as the Olympic Jewish Center, which he turned into Temple Beth Am, making it a prominent Conservative congregation of more than 1,300 families in his time. Together with his wife — and they were then, as now, a team — Rabbi Pressman served his community as an institution builder. From Camp Ramah to the then-University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), from the Brandeis campus — now Brandeis-Bardin — to Israel Bonds, if it needed to be built or to be launched, Jack and Margie Pressman built it. He was the first registrar of the University of Judaism; he was a founder of Camp Ramah; he helped recruit Shlomo Bardin to come out to the institution that now bears his name; and for years Temple Beth Am, certainly not the wealthiest of all congregations in the United States, had the largest annual campaign for Israel Bonds in the country.
Pressman helped found Los Angeles Hebrew High, Akivah Academy and the Temple Beth Am Day School that now bears his name. With foresight, he founded a non-Orthodox Jewish high school on Los Angeles’ Westside, known as the Herzl School, which could not be sustained, but the need he saw then still remains.
The late Walter Ackerman, longtime director of Camp Ramah, remembered how not only would Pressman always become personally involved, but he engaged his ba’alabatim (lay leaders), expanded their horizons, extended their reach. And along the way, he never neglected his congregation. At a time when rabbis were taught to keep their distance from congregants, his closest friends were his own congregants — he traveled with them, enjoyed their company, went through the travails and joys of life with them, and could still remain their rabbi.
Rabbi Perry Netter recalled that when he interviewed for an internship at Temple Beth Am, he was wary of Pressman’s reputation as a showman rabbi, palling around with Hollywood stars. So he asked Rabbi Pressman how he spent his average day. Pressman took out his calendar and went through every appointment, recited by heart the circumstances of each of the congregants with whom he had met, remembered each bar mitzvah boy and bat mitzvah girl, every bride and groom. Young Rabbi Netter was wowed and went away feeling that it would be an honor to intern with this man. Rabbi Pressman may have known the rich and famous, but he also always took pride in the men and women within his own congregation.
A national communal leader in the 1960s, Pressman helped to create the Save Soviet Jewry movement that brought the plight of Soviet Jewry to the attention of the American public and helped create the program that eventually enabled tens of thousands of Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel.
In 1965, he joined a group of 293 Southern Californians who walked with Martin Luther King Jr., who was joined by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, then head of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Together they crossed the Pettis Bridge to the state Capitol building in Montgomery, Ala., — with so many whites in the march and so much national attention that Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety during the American civil rights movement, could not fully unleash his troops.
Although Pressman is an institution builder, two of his major contributions to L.A. Jewish life may have been an institution he did not build and an institution he empowered to come into being without him.
After the L.A. riots, when synagogues were moving westward, Pressman committed to his congregation that they would remain in place at the intersection of Olympic and La Cienega boulevards, provided a substantial number of families would stay in the neighborhood. He went from door to door, speaking individually to families and getting them to sign up. As a result, Temple Beth Am is that rare Conservative congregation in California with a walking community, and it remains the anchor of the historic Carthay neighborhood. Three out of four of its members live within two miles of the synagogue.
In 1973, Pressman realized that in the future the “one-size-fits-all service” would not meet the needs of his congregation. Young Jews, educated at Camp Ramah and in Jewish day schools, graduates of the JTS and of Judaic studies programs, were coming to Los Angeles, many to serve its expanding Jewish community, and they wanted a self-led participatory service rather than a professionally led formal service. Pressman encouraged this group to form the Library Minyan, a family-friendly, informal lay-led minyan, which over the years was integrated into the congregation and provided its leadership. By now, Beth Am has thrived for some 43 years, and on any given Shabbat, as many as five different services are taking place within the synagogue’s walls; Beth Am became the precursor to the “synaplex.”
For many years, Pressman would say, wistfully, that he served the Beth Am community for more than 60 years, and what did he get? “A bunch of kids running around town wearing my name on their dirty shirts.”
The reference is to the fact that when he retired, Temple Beth Am named its award-winning day school in his honor: “The Rabbi Jacob Pressman Day School.”
He’s talking about my kids, I thought, my kids and grandkids. This has got to stop. Don’t get mad, get even, I thought.
I waited. And then one day I struck.
Fresh out of the hospital, Rabbi Pressman did us the honor of attending our son’s bar mitzvah. When I rose to speak, I said, “I know your complaints, rabbi, but last week I attended a basketball game — Maimonides versus Pressman. Not bad company, Maimonides/Pressman in the same breath. My kids and the students who attend the school call Maimonides Maimo, but Pressman, they call Pressman. My daughter played Hillel the next night, Hillel/Pressman, also not bad company. I asked the students who was Maimonides, few knew that Maimonides and the Rambam were the same, but our kids all know Rabbi Pressman.”
When my wife, Melissa, and I first came to Los Angeles, Margie and Rabbi Jack took an interest in us. When I took a new job, he admonished me on what I should do. He took an interest in my speaking style and even in the manner of my dress.
My wife and I have become close to the Pressmans over the past 16 years; we share Passover together and holiday dinners. We seek their advice; we enjoy their company, and we attend many events where Rabbi Jack gets up to speak. He is increasingly frail and walks with difficulty, but put him in front of a microphone, and 20 years come off his age. He becomes robust again, his voice strong, his wit and his wisdom intact.
Each Rosh Hashanah, we attend the service on the first night to hear his poetic blessing, and each graduation and gala dinner of the Pressman Academy, his words are inspiring, his talent manifest.
Rabbi Pressman’s life and his calling were one and the same. Rabbi emeritus for some 27 years, he and Margie have continued to serve the community in retirement as they did when it was their paid vocation. And we, the Jewish community — and most especially the community of Beth Am — are graced by their service and their presence.
Simply put. Rabbi Jack Pressman is to be treasured.