Lavey Derby takes helm as Board of Rabbis president

Rabbi Lavey Derby is quick to admit that he will probably not have the opportunity to save the world. He will, however, have the chance to save a few local marriages, and that's pretty good, too.

Derby, senior rabbi of the Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon and the newly elected president of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, said he'd like to see the board make a new push to strengthen families and marriages.

"We've always talked of marriage as a challenge, but rarely has the Jewish community talked about the huge divorce rate as a challenge. I'd love to see that question addressed," said Derby, who succeeds the board's outgoing president, Rabbi Stephen Pearce of San Francisco's Reform Congregation Emanu-El. "I'd love to see what the religious community can do to support and strengthen Jewish marriages of whatever kind."

Other than the new priority of addressing marital issues, Derby does not see the need to navigate the Board of Rabbis toward any "cutting-edge innovations."

Instead, the new president hopes to continue the board's traditional duties: providing the local community with rabbinic perspectives on issues, acting as the endorsing agency for Jewish chaplains in state prisons and institutions and, perhaps most importantly, serving as a support network for area rabbis.

"Rabbis are very beleaguered and always under a great deal of stress. You never have enough time and never have anyone take you aside and say, 'Gee rabbi, what can I do to be helpful?'" said Pearce. "The board of rabbis is as much a fraternal organization as it is a professional organization. What I mean by this is that there should be an organization that offers support to rabbis in various situations."

Pearce, who holds a Ph.D. in counseling psychology, has also assisted stressed rabbis on a one-on-one basis. Derby, a certified psychotherapist since 1979, will similarly be able to aid rabbis in need of a hospitable ear.

"Clergy people work with a great number of members of the community and congregation, and some have many friends. But no one understands a rabbi like another rabbi," said Derby. "All rabbis and clergy people experience a great deal of stress in their lives. I think the best thing the board is doing at the moment is providing social venues where rabbis can simply get together. Being a clergy person can be very lonely; this is a great opportunity for collegiality."

Giving the Bay Area rabbinical community the opportunity to rub elbows is one of the board's most important functions, according to Pearce. Yet he laments that the harried life of a modern rabbi and the wide geographical range covered by the Board of Rabbis of Northern California render it difficult to set up social occasions.

Pearce is pleased, however, in his role of continuing the development of the board as a professional organization.

"For many years, the board was run by Rabbi Malcolm Sparer. There were no officers; he ran the whole show," recalled Pearce, who was the second president since Sparer left the position, following Rabbi Alan Lew of Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco. "Once [Sparer] decided to retire, we had to start from ground zero, create officers and committees. So I'm proud to have been part of that, getting the board of rabbis onto different footing."

Pearce is also proud of the board's continuing High Holy Day sermon seminars, which give local rabbis the opportunity to interact with noted scholars before penning their sermons. The outgoing president also remarked on the benefits of acquiring the services of Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum, who, as executive director, has taken on many of the duties once handled by Sparer.

Pearce, who will be on sabbatical from Emanu-El until April, also cited the chaplaincy programs and the annual Yom Yerushalayim dinner established in Sparer's honor.

Regarding his successor, Pearce said, "Lavey Derby is a wonderful rabbi. He has very extensive experience, having worked with the federation [as the director of the Council on Jewish Li

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.