November 19, 2018

Rabbi Jacob Pressman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am, dies at 95

Rabbi Jacob Pressman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am for 35 years, community leader and civil rights activist, died peacefully at his home on Thursday morning, Oct. 1.

Funeral services will be held  Sunday, Oct. 4 at 10:30 a.m. at Temple Beth Am, 1039 S, La  Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles (parking is limited at the Temple, alternate parking is available at the Beverly Hills Tennis Courts, corner Olympic and La Cienega blvds.)

Interment will follow promptly at 1 p.m. at Eden Memorial Park Cemetery, 11500 Sepulveda Blvd., Mission Hills

Due to the holidays, shiva will not begin until Wednesday, Oct. 7. For times and locations, check the Temple website at www.tbala.org.

[Jewish community reflects on Rabbi Jacob Pressman]

An Appreciation

by Michael Berenbaum

The Los Angeles Jewish Community has lost a giant: Rabbi Jacob Pressman.

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 was a wise man.

His role in the Los Angeles community was historic.

Born in Philadelphia in October 1919, he was raised at Temple Beth Am of Philadelphia, whose rabbi took a great interest in the young Jack Pressman and brought him in to teach Hebrew School and to run youth services. He was paid very modestly for his services but it was the time of the Great Depression, when every dime was worth its weight in gold. Through this, too, young Jack’s interest in the rabbinate was born, as was his interest in a certain young woman two years his junior, Marjorie Steinberg, who would become his wife by the time of his death of more than 70 years. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Pressman entered the Jewish Theological Seminary just as World War II began, and his rabbinic training was accelerated as the United States military needed chaplains, and the American rabbinate needed rabbis desperately, as young rabbis were going off to fight with their congregants. While still a student, Pressman served as rabbi of Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens, New York, whose own Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser was in the army. Pressman was instrumental in the design of the synagogue building, a massive structure on Queens Boulevard. And he took particular interest in the Ark, which was designed by noted artist and political satirist Arthur Syk. Although Pressman was offered prestigious positions on the East Coast, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Chancellor Louis Finkelstein advised the young rabbi to “Go West.” Los Angeles, he said, would soon join New York and Palestine – pre-State Israel – as one of the three great centers for Jewish life. Pressman said he never regretted heeding Finkelstein’s characteristically sagacious advice.

Pressman served as assistant to Rabbi Jacob Cohen at Sinai Temple, and then, in 1950, took over a small congregation then known as the Olympic Jewish Center and turned it into Temple Beth Am; under Pressman’s leadership, Beth Am grew to become one of the region’s most prominent Conservative Congregations, with more than 1,300 families. Together with his wife, Marjorie – and they were always a team — Pressman served his community as an institution-builder. From Camp Ramah to the then University of Judaism, from Brandeis – now Brandeis Bardin – to Israel Bonds, if it needed to be built or to be launched, Rabbi Jack and Margie Pressman were at the forefront to help build it.

Pressman 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 congregations in the United States, nevertheless ran the largest annual campaign for Israel Bonds in the country. Pressman helped found Los Angeles Hebrew High, Sinai-Akiba Academy and the Temple Beth Am Day School that now bears his name. He had foresight: he founded a non-Orthodox Jewish High School on L.A.’s West Side – 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 said that not only did Pressman become personally involved in these projects, but he also engaged his “ba’albatim, to expand their horizons, enlarge their reach.” They remained his congregants, but they also became his friends. Yet he never neglected his congregation.

Rabbi Perry Netter recalled that when he interviewed for an internship at Temple Beth Am, he was wary of Rabbi Pressman’s reputation, his association with Hollywood and his sense of showmanship. So he asked Rabbi Pressman, “How do you spend your average day?” Pressman took out his appointment book, and went through every appointment, recited by heart the circumstances of each of the congregants with whom he had met, remembering each bar mitzvah boy and bat mitzvah girl, every bride and groom. Netter was wowed, and went away knowing it would be an honor to intern with this man. Rabbi Pressman may have known the rich and famous, but he also took pride in the men and women in his own congregation.

He was also a communal leader. On a national level, 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.

And, as a supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, in 1965 he joined a group of 293 Southern Californians who walked with Martin Luther King, Jr. across the bridge to the State Capitol building in Montgomery. With so many whites in the “March,” and so much national attention, Gov. Bull Connor could not fully unleash his troops.

In July of 1985, Pressman assumed the title of rabbi emeritus, as he relinquished the reins of spiritual leadership of Temple Beth Am to Rabbi Joel Rembaum. Thus began three decades of continuing community service, including two years as executive director of the local Israel Bonds office in the late 1980s. He remained involved in the affairs of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, serving as chair of its board of governors, among other activities.

Known for his brilliant oratory and penetrating wit, Pressman welcomed the 21st century by embarking on a number of writing projects. In 2002 he published a collection of his sermons on the seminal historical moments of the 20th century, titled “Dear Friends.” He also served as a regular columnist for the Beverly Hills Courier. He also was an entertainer who could put on quite a show, singing and playing the Piano. Some of Hollywood’s great would join him. Jayne Meadows and Steve Allen were friends, and Steve played at his birthday bashes. Marilyn and Monte Hall were not only congregants, but devoted friends.

When Pressman retired, Temple Beth Am named its award winning day school in his honor: The Rabbi Jacob Pressman Day School. For many years, Pressman would say, wistfully: “I served the Beth Am community for more than 60 years, and what did I get? A bunch of kids running around town wearing my name on their dirty shirts.”

“He’s talking about my kids” I thought, my kids and grandkids. “This has got to stop. Don’t get mad, get even,” I vowed.

I waited. And then one day I struck. Pressman had come to the synagogue having just recovered from an illness, and I was the speaker in the Library Minyan that Shabbat morning. I acknowledged his presence and then 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 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 who Rabbi Pressman was!” Enough said, we never heard the complaint again.

My family became close to the Pressmans over the past 18 years; we shared Passover together and holiday dinners. We sought their guidance; we enjoyed their company and we attended many events when Rabbi Jack would get up to speak. In recent last years, he became increasingly frail, he walked with great difficulty, but once you put him in front of a microphone, 20 years came off his age. He became robust again, his voice strong. His wit and his wisdom intact.

Each Rosh Hashanah we attended the large congregational service at Temple Beth Am on the first night, which is not our style, if only to hear his poetic blessing. This year, for the first time in more 65 years, Rabbi Pressman was not there to bless us. Alas, the verdict was sealed, and he did not make it through Sukkot, though he struggled to attend synagogue on Yom Kippur. For decades, even after retirement, at each graduation and gala dinner of the Pressman Academy his words were inspiring, his considerable talent, even when diminished but slightly by age, most manifest.

Los Angeles has lost a Rabbis’ rabbi and a valiant leader. He leaves behind many students and congregants, many of whom still regard him as their rabbi and as a caring friend. He leaves behind a loving family: his wife, Marjorie, his children, Rabbi Daniel Pressman, Rabbi Emeritus of Beth David Congregation in Saratoga, Calif.; and Judy Pressman, who lives in Israel. His son Joel Pressman predeceased him. Plus five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Tribute donations in Rabbi Pressman’s memory are being accepted by Temple Beth Am and by the Rabbi Jacob Pressman Scholarship Fund of the Pressman Academy. Donations, indicating the preferred recipient, can be made online at www.tbala.org/tribute or by mailing to Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90035. For additional information, phone executive director Sheryl Goldman at (310) 652-7354, ext. 223.