June 26, 2019

Marjorie Pressman: ‘I created my own role’

Like an elegant first lady, Marjorie Pressman knows how to dress for an interview.

She chooses a baby-blue cardigan set crowned with opal buttons, double-strand pearls and a dash of iridescent eye shadow. In her mid-80s, she retains a youthful glow as she sits in her living room amidst a lifetime of acquired artifacts — family portraits, Judaic art from masters Marc Chagall and Reuven Rubin and other souvenirs of a 66-year marriage (on their travels, she takes pictures; her husband sketches).

“She was not an observer, not a rabbi's accompanist,” declares her husband, Rabbi Jacob Pressman, 89, who retired from his post as senior rabbi of the Conservative Temple Beth Am on La Cienega Blvd. in 1995. “She was a power in herself. She endorsed all the things that were important to me. She could have had any career; but she suppressed herself, and always gave me the limelight.”

“He said I was the mainstay of his career,” Marjorie jokes. But the way she tells it, throughout his synagogue reign, she never had to want for attention — she had her own light.

Marjorie Pressman came of age in the heyday of the “traditional” rebbetzin — the 1950s mold of women raising children, maintaining a kosher home and (quietly) supporting their husbands from the background. Even so, she established herself as a synagogue matriarch widely recognized as her husband's full partner.

When they first arrived in Los Angeles in 1946, the couple worked together to help shape Los Angeles' small, emergent Jewish community. They helped found the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), West Coast Camp Ramah, Los Angeles Hebrew High School and the Maple Center. Some people found her irreverent, domineering, even revolutionary, but that didn't stop her.

“Nothing fazed me. I just said we could do it, and we did it,” Marjorie Pressman said about the ambitious programming they brought to synagogue life. “I've always been a very social person. I would have done a lot of the things I did even if I hadn't been married to a rabbi. I always felt liberated, because my husband gave me a long leash — I did whatever I wanted.”

The Pressmans met in high school in Philadelphia, where they both grew up in Conservative homes. Pressman admits she followed her husband to the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied journalism, though she never pursued it. After college, her husband enrolled at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, and they were married within the year.

After Jacob was ordained in 1946, he was offered a position as assistant rabbi at Sinai Temple. It was there that Marjorie realized she “could do things as the wife of the rabbi,” so she started with the sisterhood. Through the Women's League for Conservative Judaism, she extended the Torah Fund, a scholarship program for rabbinical students at JTS to benefit students at the University of Judaism.

“I knew that I had certain leadership skills, and I knew how to speak. People would come to me and ask me to do things,” Pressman said.

Pressman's real opportunity to lead came when her husband was invited to re-invigorate a fledgling synagogue called Olympic Jewish Temple and Center. It had 200 families at the time, and under the Pressmans, that number grew to 1,300 and the name changed to Temple Beth Am. There, Pressman expanded programming to include art shows, speaking events for authors and celebrity concerts with the likes of Theodore Bikel, Michael Feinstein and Alan King. She used those events to attract people to the synagogue, and when she had them hooked, she started to fundraise.

“I know that there were some rabbis' wives who thumbed their noses at me because I was doing fundraising,” she said. “Rabbis' wives who worked thought you had to be a teacher — that was your role.”

Pressman had different ambitions. In 1972, she spearheaded an event called Israel Expo West, a six-day Israel culture fair, that put Israel at the forefront of the temple's priority list. She engaged some of the temple's biggest donors and lured some from other synagogues. On the eve of Israel's 25th anniversary, Beth Am opened its doors to 50,000 people for six days of programming, the product of a thousand-member committee, with ties to every local organization affiliated with Israel. The event raised enough money to create the first emergency room at Tele Shomer Hospital in Israel, now the Chaim Sheba Medical Center, and is clearly Pressman's greatest source of pride.

With a sly smile, she recalls how she also ruffled more than a few feathers with fashion statements. There was the time she drew gasps when she first colored her hair, or when she wore the synagogue's first-ever pants suit to Rosh Hashanah services.

“I was very nervous, but I did it as a statement,” she said. “I didn't have a role model; I created my own role. I did what I wanted to do, not what people expected me to do.”

Even though she was constantly scrutinized and judged, Pressman said she values her friendships with congregants above all. She wasn't afraid to let people in and see the interior of her life. This attitude is considered unconventional today, when many public figures crave privacy.

“If I couldn't be friends with congregants, I wouldn't have any social life,” Pressman said. “People are sometimes reluctant to socialize with the rabbi, but I enjoy being with people so much that I never feel imposed upon.”

Yet she defends others in her role who do things differently: “When I used to go out and speak to sisterhoods, invariably, some man would come up to me and say, 'We wish our rebbetzin would do the same things you do,' and I would stop them, and I would say, 'Look, you hired your rabbi; you didn't hire his wife.'”

Pressman believes a rabbi/rebbetzin team is an asset, though she does not think it's crucial for a healthy synagogue. Her husband might disagree:

“I have said publicly that we are interchangeable parts. She was a tremendous influence and power in the building of the synagogue — a rabbi's wife par excellence — and I have said, if I have achieved anything in life, it's because she was my partner.,” Rabbi Pressman said. “Any other girls I might have married wouldn't have made it. If I wouldn't have ever met her….” his voice trails off.

“You wouldn't be a rabbi,” his wife said, finishing his sentence.

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