(Courtesy: Dan Pine)
Josiah Derby, a distinguished rabbi who could trace his lineage back more than 900 years, died Dec. 18 in Coconut Creek, Fla., one week shy of his 89th birthday.
Rabbi emeritus of Rego Park Jewish Center in Queens, N.Y., and Congregation Beth Shalom in Coconut Creek, Derby was also the father of Lavey Derby, senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.
Born in Berditchev, Ukraine, Derby was a seventh-generation direct descendent of noted Chassidic Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev.
Derby came to the United States with his family in 1921. After earning a master’s degree in mathematics from Harvard University, Derby attended the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He was ordained in 1943, and during World War II he served as a chaplain with U.S. forces in Hawaii.
While still a rabbinical student, Derby played a central role in the founding of the Rego Park Jewish Center in Queens.
“At that point, most Jews in New York lived in Brooklyn and the Bronx,” says Rabbi Leon Rosenbloom of Congregation Beth Shalom. “Queens was the hinterlands. Rabbi Derby built what would become a magnificent keystone of the Conservative movement.”
Ruth Loewenstein, a past president of the Rego Park Jewish Center and a member since 1950, has fond memories of the rabbi. “He was very warm,” she recalls, “with a wonderful sense of humor.” During his tenure at Rego Park, Rabbi Derby broke with some traditions, especially regarding a woman’s role in temple life.
“He really let women participate,” says Loewenstein. “We were allowed to carry the Torah on Simchat Torah, which was really tremendous for those days.”
An outspoken liberal, Derby fought for social justice and interfaith dialogue. On one erev Yom Kippur, Loewenstein recalls, Derby shared the bimah with the neighborhood Catholic priest.
On another occasion, when New York City officials planned a low-income housing project in adjacent Forest Hills, Derby urged congregants to welcome their new neighbors rather than take a “not-in-my-backyard” approach.
Says his son, Lavey Derby of Tiburon, “He was confident in his opinions. People may have argued or disagreed with him, but they loved him.”
In 1952, the elder Derby helped found the Solomon Schecter School of Queens, the first Conservative day school in the United States.
Always civic minded, he served as a trustee of the Queensborough Public Library and was also a member of the Catholic-Jewish Relations Committee in Brooklyn.
Perhaps no one knew Derby better than his own family. Lavey Derby recalls his father as a man “of prodigious intellect, witty and sharp minded. He gave most of his life to his work.”
After retiring from the Rego Park synagogue in 1983, Rabbi Derby relocated to Coconut Creek near Fort Lauderdale.
Recalls Rosenbloom: “The nearest synagogue was four miles away. People were looking for a closer synagogue, so in 1985 he was among the founders of Beth Shalom. The first services were held in a community building of a local bank. In time, the congregation grew from zero to 700 families.”
Adds Lavey Derby, “My father had phenomenal energy and a good eye for the marketplace. He could tell it would be a fairly simple matter to build a new synagogue in Coconut Creek. It reflects my father as a community builder.”
For the first two years at Beth Shalom, Josiah Derby was the only rabbi, serving on voluntary basis only. In 1989, Rosenbloom was hired, but Derby remained active, serving on the board and teaching classes.
“He was deeply devoted to the Jewish people,” says Rosenbloom. “Rabbi Derby was also a wonderful biblical scholar, with over 40 articles published.”
Lavey Derby adds: “My father started writing after retirement. One of his first loves was Bible, and he especially liked the books of the prophets. He enjoyed the opportunity to debunk the usual understandings of text. He liked to stir the pot.”
Rabbi Josiah Derby was married for 64 years to Bertha Reifel Derby, who died in March 2001. He is survived by his second wife, Adele Wolman Derby, his sons Lavey and Jeff of Chapel Hill, N.C., three grandchildren and two sisters.