Driving through the Sepulveda Pass on the San Diego Freeway, new generations of Southern Californians might easily assume that the Jewish religious and cultural institutions along the way have always been there.
But the mountain pass that is home to the University of Judaism (1977), the Skirball Cultural Center (1996), Milken Community High School (1993) and Stephen S. Wise Temple (1968) wasn’t always affectionately known as the “Hills of Judea.”
“I grew up in Los Angeles. I remember the ‘50s,” said Rabbi Robert Wexler, president of the University of Judaism. In those days, he said, even Jewish Federation events did not serve kosher food. “If you look at what the Jewish community is right now, the tremendous number of resources, we didn’t always have them,” he said.
Many people helped build the institutions that have shaped what is now the nation’s second-largest Jewish community. Among the most prominent is Rabbi Jacob Pressman.
Pressman, whose 80th birthday is being celebrated this weekend, was a founder and the first registrar of the University of Judaism, which opened in 1947 and moved to its present location in 1977. He helped start the Beverly Hills Maple Counseling Center, the forerunner of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute; Camp Ramah in Ojai; Akiba Academy; and what became known as the Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade day school at Temple Beth Am, where he was for many years the senior rabbi.
“These institutions,” said Rabbi Joel Rembaum, who succeeded Pressman at Beth Am, “were very significant in changing the face of Conservative Judaism in the city.”
Still youthful for a man of 80, Pressman has hair the color of a charcoal briquette--ebony singed by lines of gray. His deep, penetrating brown eyes bespeak joys and lamentations in the service of his God and community.
In his long career, he witnessed hate and hope on the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., built the first known Holocaust memorial in the nation, was an early voice for the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union--and once faced down California Gov. Jerry Brown, denying him a seat at a banquet table after Brown proved to be the only governor in the nation who failed to respond to a synagogue request for a bicentennial flag.
Of Selma, Pressman later wrote about standing on a hilltop along the route of the march and seeing a solid half-mile of people.
“I burst into tears and never really got my eyes dry for hours afterward,” he wrote. “They were tears of pride in the goodness of which man is capable when he tries.”
Known as a consummate preacher, Pressman recounted his life and times during a recent interview, which included his wife, Marjorie, at their Beverly Hills apartment.
He has cataloged every sermon he ever preached. They reflect a social activist’s passion and the spirit of a man who, though he at times has confronted evil, still believes in the ultimate goodness of humankind.
In the 1940s Pressman was raising alarms about the terrible events unfolding in Germany and in the Warsaw ghetto.
After the war, Holocaust survivors began moving into Temple Beth Am’s Westside neighborhood. One of them gave Pressman a yellow armband emblazoned with a star of David that Nazis had forced Jews to wear.
Under his leadership, the first known Holocaust memorial in America was created at the temple--not an easy task during a time when even those in the Jewish community wanted to forget.
“It was very difficult,” Marjorie Pressman said. “Many survivors didn’t want to talk, and those who weren’t there didn’t want to hear.”
‘A New Kind of Jewish Diplomacy’
It was a cause that would echo several years later when Pressman spoke out about the situation of Jews in the Soviet Union. “We decided we were not saving any Jews by being quiet,” he said. “Let them live, or let them leave!” became his rallying cry.
A turning point came in 1964 at a meeting in Washington’s Willard Hotel of the nation’s Jewish leaders, including Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, Sens. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut and Jacob Javits of New York and Pressman.
The meeting, the rabbi wrote later, led to “a new kind of Jewish diplomacy, courageous, vocal, proud, self-respecting. It speaks to the conscience of the world. 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.”
Pressman found goodness even in a man who kidnapped him in 1954. The man had read in a newspaper that Pressman was to preside at a society wedding. He arrived at the rabbi’s office in a Marine uniform, pulled a .45-caliber handgun from a duffel bag and demanded $5,000.
Pressman told him that he didn’t have $5,000, but they drove to Pressman’s bank, where the rabbi withdrew $400 from his personal savings. After Pressman was released, he said, he received a phone call from the kidnapper, who wanted to apologize.
“I came to you with hate, and your answer to me was love. I want to get out of this,” Pressman recalled the kidnapper telling him. His abductor told Pressman the name of the hotel where he was staying and asked the rabbi to wire him $80 to get home.
Instead of calling the police, Pressman did as he was asked. The rabbi said the man repaid about half the money in cash stuck into greeting cards for the next two years.
He ends the tale with a characteristic quip: “How many crooks do you know who pay you back?”