Rabbi Jacob Pressman dies at 95; led prominent L.A. synagogue for 35 years

When Rabbi Jacob Pressman started his career, World War II was raging and a young mother was mourning.

“My very first service was a graveside funeral for a month-old baby,” he once recalled in a sermon. “I was driven to the cemetery by the mother, the father being overseas in the service. I stood, my heart in my mouth, waiting for the hearse. Finally, I timidly asked, ‘Where is the casket?’ The mother pointed to a tiny pink box lying level with the ground and promptly collapsed into my arms.

“I conducted the brief service, weeping, no longer pretending to be a rabbi. For in that moment, I truly had become a rabbi, and I never looked back.”

Pressman, a longtime leader of the Los Angeles Jewish community who established what became one of the largest Conservative temples in the West, died in his sleep Thursday, according to an announcement from Temple Beth Am. He was 95.

The rabbi, who led the temple for more than 35 years, also helped found a number of other important Jewish institutions in the Los Angeles area, including Camp Ramah, the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, Los Angeles Hebrew High School and the University of Judaism, where he was the first registrar. A school at Temple Beth Am bears his name.

“There is no Jewish Los Angeles as we know it without Rabbi Jacob Pressman,” Adam Kligfeld, Temple Beth Am’s current senior rabbi, said in a statement.

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Pressman was also an early advocate for Soviet Jews, publicizing their persecution and calling for Soviet officials to allow their emigration to Israel.

At a 1964 meeting at Washington’s Willard Hotel, he and other prominent Jewish Americans forged what he later called “a new kind of Jewish diplomacy — vocal, proud, self-respecting.”

“It speaks to the conscience of the world,” he wrote. “If the world does not listen, the sin will not again be on our heads. If the world does listen, then for one-quarter of the Jews in the world today, hope was born at the Willard Hotel.”

Witty and eloquent, Pressman sometimes brought a flair for showmanship to the pulpit. Although he retired from Temple Beth Am in 1985, he spoke there frequently, as when he delighted Rosh Hashana worshippers in 2007 with his wishes for the new year.

“May your neighborhood be blessed with alert and plentiful policemen, quick to respond when summoned, and with skilled paramedics just a 911 away, and may you never need them.

“May the words ‘you know,’ ‘like,’ ‘I mean,’ ‘ummm,’ ‘it’s so fun,’ ‘you guys’ and that meaningless, apathetic word, ‘Whatever!’ be banished from polite conversation. And those old-fashioned expressions — ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ ‘pardon me,’ ‘after you’ and ‘you look marvelous’ — be heard in the land.”

For his 90th birthday, Pressman staged a fundraiser in which he sang show tunes and told jokes — as he had from time to time with show business friends Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows and Monty Hall.

“People who haven’t seen me for a while greet me with a mix of surprise and confusion,” he told the crowd. “They’ll say, ‘We’ve seen your name on the temple — we thought maybe you’d be dead.’”

Born Oct. 26, 1919, in Philadelphia, Pressman felt the call of the rabbinate when he was a teenager. He tutored other students in Hebrew and, for pocket change, taught first-graders Jewish history. After his bar mitzvah, his rabbi encouraged him to attend Hebrew High School, an academy three trolley rides and an hour from home.

“I never went through a period of doubt,” Pressman said in a 1980 Times interview. “I always felt my blessings were not of my own doing and so, in my personal life and in my astonishment at the miracles of nature, I felt a sense of awe and presence.”

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the Jewish Theological Seminary, he served at a temple in Forest Hills, N.Y., before heading for Los Angeles’ Temple Sinai with his wife, Marjorie, in 1946. Four years later, he took over as rabbi at the Olympic Jewish Center, which he built into Temple Beth Am, a congregation with more than 1,300 families.

As Holocaust survivors started moving into the temple’s Westside neighborhood in the years after the war, Rabbi Jack, as he was known, created one of America’s first Holocaust memorials. One of the centerpieces was a yellow armband emblazoned with the Star of David — a survivor’s keepsake.

“It was very difficult,” his wife told a Times reporter in 1999. “Many survivors didn’t want to talk, and those who weren’t there didn’t want to hear.”

After becoming the temple’s rabbi emeritus, Pressman wrote columns for the Beverly Hills Courier, served as chair of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, and participated in many community activities.

In addition to Marjorie, his wife since 1942, Pressman’s survivors include his son Daniel, a fellow rabbi; daughter Judy; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. His son Joel, a teacher at Beverly Hills High School, died in 2013.

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FOR THE RECORD

Oct. 7, 11:24 a.m.: An earleir verison of this obituary stated that Rabbi Jacob Pressman's son Joel died in 2014. He died in 2013.

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com

A complete obituary will appear at www.latimes.com/obituaries

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UPDATE

6:49 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with additional information.

This article was originally published at 2:18 p.m.

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