Marjorie Pressman, a notable communal leader and rebbetzin par excellence of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, where her husband, Rabbi Jacob Pressman, served as rabbi from 1950-1985, died at home April 4 after a period of declining health. She was 94.
It is a stereotype of generations past that behind every successful man stood a smart woman, but no matter how prominent a role her husband took in the Los Angeles Jewish community, Marjorie Pressman was not behind him, but at his side.
They were “quite a team” is how two congregants described them, each using the same words with the same emphasis. Pressman was a force of nature. She was a counselor and protector, defender and advocate — not only for her husband, but also for the causes they both embraced.
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It was said of women of her generation that they married what they would have wanted to become. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Pressman would have succeeded in whatever she tried to become, and I do not know if the rabbinate was her calling — as it was her husband’s — but when she took on the role of rebbetzin, she became its personification. She was involved in every aspect of synagogue life, as well as in the larger Jewish community.
Pressman was a prolific fundraiser, even into her late 80s; she was active in support of Israel, throwing her still-enormous energy into activities on behalf of the Sheba Medical Center in Israel. She would call donors large and small, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. She was persuasive, even demanding at times. Her pitch was always compelling.
Pressman was responsible for bringing Israel Expo to Los Angeles in the heyday of American Jewry’s infatuation with the Jewish state after the Six-Day War in 1967. She pioneered art shows and celebrations of Israel, and her commitment never waned. Philanthropist Marilyn Ziering, who worked with Pressman on many philanthropic efforts, said Pressman never asked anyone to do any task that she would not do herself. Nothing was too menial, no task too difficult. When she was involved, she gave her efforts her full heart and soul — and commanded the same from those who worked with her.
Former Beth Am President Dvorah Colker recalled Pressman’s exquisite taste. She was a skilled photographer and an indefatigable chronicler. She was also a hard taskmaster and never accepted second-rate work from herself or anyone else. She assembled a vast collection of images and historical recollections of her family’s personal life and communal efforts. In honor of the 70th anniversary of her marriage to Rabbi Pressman, she compiled a joint autobiography of their life achievements, including the family they had raised together, the friends they had made and nurtured, the celebrities they had known, the institutions they had jointly built, the journeys they had taken, the values they upheld, and the wisdom they together put into work that is at once beautiful and majestic. It is an autobiography that is also a communal history and an ethical will.
Pressman often recounted how, unlike other rabbis and rebbetzins of her generation, she and her “Rabbi Jack” were close friends with their congregants. They socialized with congregants and traveled with them, not just to Israel and sacred sites, but also on vacation and in informal outings, and never feared that such friendships would diminish the rabbi’s stature. Indeed, their friendships only deepened the respect with which they were held, and enhanced their effectiveness in the congregation. The two were so natural in who they were that the closer you got to them, the greater the respect.
Born Marjorie Steinberg in Philadelphia, began her romance with her future husband in a youth group in an inner-city Philadelphia congregation also named Temple Beth Am, and it never ended. Friends marveled that the couple never quarreled and almost always agreed; it was as if the two had truly become one, each powerful in his or her own right, but ever more formidable together. Together with his wife, Rabbi Jack Pressman served his community as an institution-builder — from Camp Ramah in Ojai, to the then-University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), from the Brandeis Camp Institute — now the Brandeis-Bardin Institute — to raising money for Israel bonds. If it needed to be built or launched, Rabbi Jack and Margie Pressman were at the forefront to make it happen.
The past years had been difficult for Marjorie, who experienced the painful loss of a daughter-in-law and, later, the couple’s son, Joel Pressman, who was a renowned drama teacher at Beverly Hills High School. And then there was her husband’s slow and relentless decline until his death on Oct. 1, 2015, at 95.
Her funeral was scheduled to be held Wednesday at Temple Beth Am, the synagogue she built with her husband, followed by interment at Eden Memorial in the family plot, surrounded by her husband, parents and in-laws. Marjorie and Rabbi Jacob Pressman were only children, so their parents followed them to Los Angeles to be with their children, and her father was deeply engaged, as well, in Temple Beth Am congregation’s religious activities.
Pressman is survived by her daughter, Judith; son Rabbi Daniel Pressman, rabbi emeritus of Beth David Congregation in Saratoga, Calif.; five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren (the latest twins were born just weeks ago). She also leaves behind a grateful congregation and community.
We will not know the likes of Marjorie Pressman again soon. She was an original.
Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute, a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University and a congregant at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.