Rabbi to the engineers retires after 33 years of serving Saratoga

Rabbi Daniel Pressman has innumerable talents, but math is not one of them.

“I was a total humanities major — never balanced a checkbook in my life — so God sent me to be rabbi to the engineers,” says Pressman, who retired last month after 33 years as the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth David in Saratoga.

Rabbi Daniel Pressman (center) after receiving a commendation in May from the Saratoga City Council for his years of service

Pressman believes that the culture of innovation, as well as its famous “iterative process” of technology development, allowed the Conservative shul to function harmoniously while Silicon Valley grew up all around it, as he was able to continually try out new programs and see what was working and what wasn’t.

Congregants, however, point to Pressman himself as the foundation of the synagogue, which serves 570 families, noting his unique ability to sustain positive relationships and his “wicked sense of humor.”

At a retirement celebration on June 28, congregants reflected on the themes of Pressman’s three decades of service. After ribbing him over his copious book collection, which “spills out from his office into every nook and cranny in the synagogue,” former board president Chuck Taubman noted how Pressman was not just a renowned scholar of Judaism, but “a man of action.”

Pressman emphasized the participation of women and girls: He added the matriarchs to the Amidah prayer, and also urged many women, denied the opportunity to have a bat mitzvah as girls, to have an adult bat mitzvah. He also welcomed interfaith families, and under his leadership, the synagogue radically reduced its energy consumption by installing solar panels and served as a homeless shelter for one month every year.

As a young rabbi, Pressman was especially passionate about Jews in the former Soviet Union who were being oppressed and not allowed to emigrate. Not only did he encourage congregants to take a stand, but he also was among the 27 rabbis arrested in 1985 for chaining themselves to the gates of the Soviet consulate in San Francisco.

David Hoffman, the shul’s current board president, commends Pressman for strengthening Beth David’s education programs in a range of subjects, from Hebrew and Torah to current events, and from preschool ages to seniors.

Pressman also created “Torah Sparks,” a weekly guide to the Torah portion written by various rabbis and distributed by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and he served on the executive committee of the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement’s professional association. He also devoted his leaves of absence to study and participation in other Jewish communities.

Pressman helps prepare a holiday dinner for the homeless.

“He’s a rabbi’s rabbi,” Hoffman says.

And the son of a rabbi, as well. Pressman’s father is Rabbi Jacob “Jack” Pressman, 94, who served Congregation Beth Am in Los Angeles from 1950 to 1985 and has a long list of credits to his name, such as being a founding father of Camp Ramah in California and of the Conservative movement’s University of Judaism in Los Angeles (now American Jewish University).

Daniel Pressman came to the Bay Area with his wife, Beverly, and three children after spending seven years as a pulpit rabbi in Palos Verdes. His tenure at Beth David was marked by his emphasis on chesed, or lovingkindness. That translated into amicable relations among the synagogue board and executive directors, he says, as well as strong support for members of the community dealing with illness or bereavement.

Pressman strengthened support for traditional Jewish funeral practices, forming a chevra kadisha (burial society) that makes traditional shrouds and performs traditional burials.

“I really felt the benefits myself of having a community during grief,” said Pressman, who lost his wife in 2008 and mourned the death of his brother, Cantor Joel Pressman, last year.

Pressman’s family will be honored with the construction of a small beit midrash (learning) sanctuary in their name that is part of an upcoming multimillion dollar building renovation.

Pressman has been succeeded by Rabbi Philip Ohriner, who became assistant rabbi in 2010. (One thing Hoffman praised Pressman for was giving five years notice, which allowed for an “entirely seamless” transition.)

Ohriner, a native of Knoxville, Tenn., received a master’s degree in Hebrew Arts and Letters and was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, eight years after beginning there with the goal of becoming a cantor. He is married to Rabbi Shoshana Ohriner, and they have three sons.

Rabbi Leslie Alexander also has come aboard, as Beth David’s rabbi dedicated to community engagement and outreach, a new position. A fifth-generation rabbi and the daughter of Rabbi Ted Alexander, who served Congregation B’nai Emunah in San Francisco from 1968 to 2006, she made news in 1986 as the first woman rabbi to serve a major Conservative congregation in the United States (1,000-member Congregation Adat Ari El in the San Fernando Valley).

As rabbi emeritus, Pressman plans to be an active congregant as he pursues a couple of book projects, hones his photography skills and continues to study Torah.

When he gave his farewell Shabbat address to 400 congregants, he announced with characteristic wit that he was looking forward to being a regular Jew in the pew.

“I’ll finally find out what the hell you’ve been talking about all these years,” he quipped.