May 30, 2002
A Rabbi’s Journey
Jacob Pressman's collection of sermons reflects events of the last half century.
Rabbi Jacob Pressman decided to become a rabbi because he could not choose among all the career options that were available to him.
"I was looking for direction, because unfortunately -- and this sounds self-serving -- I was outstanding in everything," says the current rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Am, the admission sounding more reflective than immodest.
Pressman began his career at 13, teaching a Hebrew school class at Temple Beth Am in Philadelphia. He met Marjorie, his wife of 60 years, outside of the synagogue when he was 16. By the time he was 19, he was principal of the Hebrew school and a member of the Conservative synagogue's board. By 24, he was the rabbi of a 1,000-family congregation in Forest Hills, N.Y.
To Angelenos, Pressman is best known for his 50-year association with Temple Beth Am, where he was rabbi until 1985. Looking back on a 57-year career in the rabbinate, Pressman, 82, says his many talents were not limited by his choice but expanded by it. Being a rabbi allowed him to be not only a preacher, teacher and counselor, but an architect (he created the present sanctuary at Temple Beth Am), artist (he designed, among other things, the ark used at the temple) and Liberace and Elvis impersonator (performing for congregants at special tribute concerts). He also has recently published his second book, titled "Dear Friends: A Prophetic Journey Through Great Events of the 20th Century," (Ktav Publishing House).
"Dear Friends" is a collection of Pressman's sermons, culled from some 4,000 that he has given over the years. Rather than being 300 pages of divrei Torah, the book reads like a pocket history of the 20th century and the role that Jewish social and political activism played in it. Pressman started preaching weekly sermons in 1944 -- and hasn't stopped. Through the years, his sermon topics have included the Holocaust, the White Paper, the establishment of the state of Israel, Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on Montgomery, the Vietnam War, Watergate and Sept. 11.
From the sermons collected in the book, it seems that the erudite and articulate Pressman seldom left the pulpit without providing a task for his congregation that would make the world a better place for Jews and non-Jews alike. He urged them to support the United Jewish Appeal, buy Israel bonds, be counted as Zionists, learn more about their Jewish heritage, educate others and elect honest officials into government.
These days, Pressman writes a column for The Beverly Hills Courier, and he is working on more books: a collection of his columns from the Courier, a tribute to his grandmother and "Sex and the Singular Rabbi," a selection of reminiscences and musings of his encounters with sexual matters as a rabbi.
Rabbi Jacob Pressman will sign "Dear Friends" at Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., on June 2 at 4 p.m. Call (310) 277-0141 for details.