1. You are one of the earliest founders of Sheba Medical Center. What was your first experience with Sheba?
Charlotte Sinay founded the group that was called the Guardians of Courage, and Charlotte was a member of our congregation. There had been a couple of doctors who came here on fellowships from Tel HaShomer. My husband and I were leading about 30 people on a mission to Israel, and Charlotte absolutely hounded us that we had to go visit this hospital. When we visited, we were all very taken with what they were doing. That was in 1971. And when we came back to Los Angeles, one of my brain-children was to have an Israel fair to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Israel in 1972. Most of the people on the trip ended up being chairs of various aspects of this event. Of course at that time Tel HaShomer was existing only in Quonset huts, and people would have surgery in one Quonset hut, they would be wheeled out in a gurney, even if it were raining, a nurse would hold an umbrella as they were taken to another barrack, where they had patient recovery rooms. So I got involved. We ended up raising $35,000 from Israel Expo West, as the Israel fair was called, for Tel HaShomer, for their first Emergency Room.
2. You have visited Sheba so many times. What is the major difference between your early visits, and now?
Well, tremendous differences, because now they have major buildings and facilities. In the beginning, Tel HaShomer was a government hospital. In a sense, every hospital is, but not to the same extent. For example, Hadassah is considered an American Institution, because they raise money here. When Tel HaShomer needed equipment, they would call us up. And if we bought and sent equipment, they would have to pay duty. When Hadassah bought equipment, they did not have to pay duty. It was a legal fiction that Hadassah was an American institution. So Tel HaShomer could not raise capital funds. Finally, the government said, “Look, we cannot give you all the funding you need. If you want to raise money in the Diaspora, you can.” That’s when the hospital was able to raise capital funds and start building buildings. So it’s a big change. It’s a huge campus. It’s the largest, most comprehensive hospital in all of the Middle East. So it’s very different because, in the beginning, with the barracks, the Quonset huts, it was very bare bones.
3. You are married to one of the most beloved rabbis in Los Angeles, Rabbi Jacob Pressman. What for you is the best part of being a rebbetzin?
First of all, I never refer to myself as a rebbitzen. I always ask people to call me Margie. And I didn’t marry him because he was a rabbi, I married him because I was in love with him. I would have done a lot of the things I’ve done, in the congregation and in the community, even if I wasn’t married to a rabbi, because I’m a very outgoing person, I like to work with people and it’s been a wonderful ride, it really has. My husband has done some wonderful things. He’s been an innovator in the community, he was a pioneer who started many of the local Jewish institutions. We came here at a time when the Jewish community was new. So we were able to be in on a lot of interesting beginnings: Camp Ramah, University of Judaism, Los Angeles Hebrew High School.
4. You've been married over 65 years. What is one of your secrets to such a long and happy marriage?
A sense of humor. You have to be able to laugh.
5. What’s your fondest memory of Sheba?
On my last trip, when we visited the Medical Simulation Center that was started by Dr. Amitai Ziv, I found that very impressive. They work with robots and actors to teach doctors, nurses and paramedics all their techniques without harming lives. Amitai Ziv was a pilot in the air force, and that’s what gave him the idea for this facility. He said, If we can train pilots through robots, then why can’t we do the same thing in medicine? I found that very interesting.
6. What one word would you use to describe your life?
1. Your mother was a passenger on the Exodus in July, 1947, one of 4,500 Holocaust survivors trying to flee to Israel but ultimately returned to Germany. How has this affected your life?
A great deal. It’s a testament to my mother’s courage, strength and determination, and she’s always been a role model for me. And of course it’s also the Holocaust, the Holocaust and the Exodus, have definitely influenced my life in so many ways. My parents both were concentration camp survivors. My father was a survivor of Auschwitz, and my mother was in a slave labor camp. Their persecution, and that of the Jewish people, has affected me from a very young age. When I first found out, when I was five years old, that there was a Hitler, and that’s why I didn’t have any aunts or uncles or grandparents, I remember going to my closet and hitting my dresses, I had so much anger and rage. That really motivated me to always listen. I was the kid who, when the parents started speaking with their friends about what they went through, I was always there, listening. And I’m really happy I did, because I know so many of their stories. In the positive sense, it’s always made me a really strong person, someone who’s determined to get things done. And Israel is my number one issue. I very much believe that, if there had been an Israel, there would not have been a Holocaust. It’s really important that we have a very educated population in Israel; it’s really important that Israel thrives. You need people supporting it, you need people to fight for Israel, you need people to go to school and come up with great technological developments and medical break-throughs, not only for the benefit of Israel, but also for mankind.
2. As one of the newer Board members, what do you see as one of Friend of Sheba’s major future challenges?
Motivating younger people to come aboard and get involved, to bring energy and money. Trying to make sure that there’s a new generation that’s as committed as the Zierings, the Webbs, the Pressmans. It’s hard to get that type of energy. There’s a lot of competition for young people’s attention and money; every organization knows that they need new people in order to survive and thrive.
3. How does being a lawyer affect your life?
I don’t know which came first. My assertiveness and not being afraid to ask questions, and not being a victim, and demanding things, whether that was from law school, or that’s what made me go to law school.
4. How are you insuring that your daughter follows your footsteps into philanthropy and community service?
Fortunately my daughter went to two schools that really make community service part of the education process. At the age of two-and-a-half she was making soup for the shelters. Last year, she collected used dancewear from various schools and then donated it to a downtown dance school and community dance center for underprivileged kids. At her Bat Mitzvah, the focus was NACOEJ, the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jews. Every person who was invited to the Bat Mitzvah was asked to bring an item that we packed in backpacks we purchased and which we would send to Israel for Ethiopian kids who now are in Israel. We sent 80 backpacks to Israel. I think my daughter has always seen how important it is for us to give and be involved. We’ve shown her, just by doing.
5. What is your best memory from your last visit to Sheba Medical Center?
I was just blown away meeting Dr. Amitai Ziv, and seeing his Center for Medical Simulation. I was really impressed with that center, and its methodology for training doctors and alleviating medical errors. I also met some of the Russian doctors who had immigrated, doing tremendous cancer research. I was so happy that people who immigrated to Israel are adding so much to the country.
6. What would it surprise your friends at Sheba to know about you?
We travel a lot. We were in Phuket, Thailand, during the tsunami. We’re going to Russia this summer. We’ve been to Myanmar—Burma. We’ve been to India. It’s important to see the rest of the world. I want my daughter to see that people all over the world have feelings, just like you and me. I mean, you read about X millions of people, you forget they are made up of real people. Traveling really shows us how fortunate we are, and makes us sensitive to wanting to help people and make the world a better place.