Eulogy for Derek Jay, late Emeritus President of BHPS | Zichrono Livrachah – May his memory be a source of blessing for all our lives
Hesped for Derek Jay
29th July 1921 – 6th February 2012
We have gathered here today to pay tribute to a very special person – Derek Jay: a gentleman to his fingertips; an individual with the utmost integrity, whose unassuming demeanour and humility belied his strength of character.
Fortunately, Derek lived a long life – celebrating his 90th birthday last July. Derek was born on July 29th 1921 in Kilburn, London; the only child of Phyllis and Jake Jay – formerly, Israel Jacobson. Although an only child, Derek was part of a large family. His Mother was the eldest of five siblings and was twenty when she had Derek. Consequently, Derek was very close to Leo and Dorothy his youngest uncle and aunt who were more like brother and sister to him.
During Derek’s childhood his parents moved over twenty times which resulted in Derek attending many different schools (and probably accounted for his ability to adapt easily to different circumstances!). His parents belonged to the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St Johns Wood where Derek attended religion school. Here he encountered three important Liberal figures: Rabbi Israel Mattuck, who came from the United States to the LJS exactly 100 years ago, Lily Montagu, and Marjorie Moos, who was his teacher. These three significant people had a great influence on Derek and formed the foundation of his Liberal Judaism.
Derek left school at fourteen and before joining his father’s leather and luggage business his parents insisted that he work for somebody else. He joined a fabric company as a junior. As war seemed imminent a friend suggested that they should join the St John’s Ambulance Brigade in order to learn first aid skills which would be needed. Derek was eighteen when war broke out in August 1939. He volunteered for the RAF and because of his medical training was recruited to the RAF medical corps. The usual two year training course was reduced to six months and Derek sailed for Africa calling at Durban, through the Suez Canal and up to North Africa. He served with the front line fighters and spent over two years in the desert in a mobile field hospital. During this time Derek contracted malaria and was sent to Tel Aviv to recuperate before returning to active service.
Eventually the allies landed in Italy and Derek’s unit ended up in Sorrento and Florence. During his two years in Italy he took the opportunity to go the opera and this was the beginning of a lifetime enjoyment of music and wine.
Typically, Derek spoke very little about the terrible things he saw during the war. He preferred to dwell on the lighter moments or to put a light-hearted spin on events. Derek recounted how the soldiers used to say as they were moving off to a new location, “Well the next place can’t be as bad as this one was” and then Derek would add, laughingly, “It always was!”
The dreadful carnage Derek saw during the war influenced his view on life. He always said that nothing mattered but your health. Louise and Simon recall that when anyone in the family was ill, he never panicked and was always calm and reassuring. He would take their pulse, feel their head, and say. “It will either get better or it will get worse. If it gets worse, tomorrow we’ll call the quack!”.
After the war Derek decided not to train in medicine but to join his father’s business. He eventually opened his own leather goods enterprise in Old Bond Street, London. However his medical training always stood him in good stead.
During the war years, while Derek was abroad his parents, Phyllis and Jake, had moved out of London to Warninglid, Sussex. After the war, they made another move, down to Brighton where Derek joined them. Phyllis and Jake had joined the Liberal Synagogue – as BHPS was known at the time – and Derek, together with Diana White and Betty and Geoffrey Davis founded the highly successful Liberal Youth Club. Many shidduchs were made – including Rene and Tony Luper and Julia and Stanley Marks – and lifelong friendships were formed.
One New Year’s Eve two strangers met at the King Alfred New Year’s Eve Dance. Derek saw a man accompanying two young women. The man was Peter, who was with Lyn, his future wife, and his sister, Jean. Derek asked Jean to dance and four years later they were married at our synagogue by Archie Fay. No day is ever a good day for a funeral, but since Derek and Jean were such a love match, and have been such a devoted couple for fifty-nine years, perhaps the fact that today is Valentine’s Day is very fitting.
So Derek and Jean were wed. Having moved house so many times with his parents, Derek was keen to settle. Jean and Derek built a house in Hill Brow where they brought up the children and have lived there ever since. Over the years what was once a field of oil seed rape was turned into a much loved garden where Derek spent many hours. The greenhouse became a favourite haven of peace away from the activities of the house.
Louise and Simon recall, “As a Father, Dad was always keen for us to be independent and to have experiences outside of the protected family environment and not be limited by parental control. He always believed that it was good for us to make our own decisions but supported us in our choices. He warned us about the dangers of abusing your body. He always said, ‘You have one body and it’s up to you how you look after it’. He himself was very health conscious and until the last few years very active. When we lived at home we too were encouraged out of a warm bed every morning before school during the summer and autumn months to follow him down the garden and take a somewhat chilly swim in the pool. We were always told that this was invigorating and the best way to start the day!”
After commuting to London for many years, Derek decided to transfer business activities to Brighton, taking over and extending the Brighton Sheepskin Shop. He frequented the sports shop opposite buying sports equipment for his children. When the somewhat run down and neglected Wisdens Sports came up for sale he bought it and with Jean they transformed it into one of the best stocked sports outlets of its kind in the area. Various other members of the family helped and many young people started their work careers as Saturday staff at Wisdens.
Derek worked until he was 79 when he finally disposed of the businesses and retired. He then spent long, happy hours gardening, enjoying theatre and opera and was an avid newspaper reader. By this time Louise, Steve, Josh and Gideon were living in France and Derek and Jean frequently visited them. Simon had married Kerstin (pronounced Sheshtin) and Derek and Jean now had time to spend holidays in Sweden with them and their three children Anders, Hanna and Cecilia.
In recent years Derek’s health began to fail and of necessity he spent more time at home in the house which he loved, cared for by Jean.
Throughout his life Derek was keen to try new things and enjoy life to the full. He was a great all-rounder. In his younger days, he loved to go skiing and horse riding with Leo. They shared a keen sense of humour born out of the Marx Brothers and similar entertainers whom he loved to quote: “Either: you are dead, or my watch has stopped”; “I don’t care to belong to a club that has people like me as members”. He loved swimming in his pool and gardening. All of these things he sought to pass on to his children and grandchildren, encouraging them to try different activities and cultural pursuits, but above all to enjoy life with a laugh and a smile. He loved to see the positive side of life and of people. It was rare that he would utter a bad word about anyone, and he was rarely judgmental. He was a great conciliator and had a wonderful home spun philosophy summed up in many aphorisms collected from his Mum and others over the years: “Have all you can while you can”; “Everything in moderation” and “Enjoy! Enjoy!” Derek was also a very contented person. While he enjoyed success in his business life, that success was guided not by a desire for material gain but by the wish to provide for his family and always be there for them. To him, family was everything. Derek loved being with Jean, his children and grandchildren. He was never happier than having the family around him on birthdays or other occasions and raising a glass of champagne to toast the family.
Derek was also always keen to enjoy other cultures. While Louise and Steve were living in France for ten years, he loved to visit them and explore Paris with them, as well as touring the Bordeaux region when Josh spent a year there. He welcomed Kerstin, his daughter-in-law, from Sweden into the family and loved to sit with Kerstin and her mother, Asta, to explore with them their respective cultural roots. Derek was a very sociable man. He loved to meet new people and had a great gift for connecting with others whatever the age difference or difference in backgrounds. Whether they were the friends of his children or grandchildren, newcomers to the synagogue or customers in his shops, he would always look to find things in common to chat about. He also had a great love for England – not only the beauty of its countryside and the history of its institutions, but also the values of tolerance and independent mindedness for which he had fought during his war years.
Derek lived such a full and active life – which included always being an active member of the synagogue, serving on the Council, becoming Chairman and finally, President. It is a tribute to his personal qualities – his wisdom and skills as a lay leader, his ability to work with people, to be a conciliator when there were differences of opinion, and foster a spirit of cooperative endeavour – that Derek was later honoured with the title of Emeritus President of the congregation. Of course, with Derek’s passing, the number of people in the 60+ years’ membership club is further diminished.
It is not easy to sum up a person like Derek. His death is a terrible blow to his beloved family and close friends – and he will also be sorely missed by so many people, not least by the members of the synagogue, and by those in the wider Jewish community, which he served as a Vice-President of the Rep. Council in former years. In Derek we have lost a thoroughly good, kind, generous-hearted, open-minded human being, who was a benign presence in the congregation. Warm and welcoming to all, Derek represented all that is noble about Liberal Judaism, and was a deeply committed Liberal Jew. Although he had a classical Liberal background, Derek never once criticised my way of being a Liberal Jew, or any of the changes that I have introduced into the congregation since I became rabbi in December 2000. On the contrary, Derek always showed me enormous support. To put it simply, Derek was a complete mensch – and I feel his loss keenly.
Although his sudden passing has been very painful for his loved ones, in particular for Jean, Louise and Simon, it is a blessing to know that he spent a lovely time with all three of them on the Shabbat before his heart attack and that he did not suffer and died peacefully.
Finally, I want to share some verses from Psalms 24 and 112 with you now, because they provide such a fitting testimony and tribute to Derek. We read in Psalm 24:
Who may send the mountain of the Eternal One, and who may stand in God’s holy place?
One whose hands are clean, whose heart is pure, who has not given up his soul to worthless things, nor committed himself to deception;
Who follows integrity, does what is right, and speaks the truth in his heart.
These verses describe Derek perfectly, and the following verses from Psalm 112 remind us why being a person of integrity is so important:
Happy is the one who has awe for the Eternal One, and takes great joy in God’s commands.
Such a person shines a light in the darkness for honest people; is gracious and merciful and righteous.
The memory of a righteous person shall last forever – l’zeicher olam yihyeh tzadik
Derek was a righteous person. He will be missed by many people – by his family, near and far, by his friends, by the members of his congregation at Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue and the wider Jewish community. As Derek’s rabbi for the past eleven years, I feel honoured to have known him. Always warm, engaging, courteous and kind, Derek also had the ability to smile and to face each day, hopefully and joyfully, even when his health began to decline. May we learn from his example; and – zichrono livrachah – may his memory be a source of blessing for all our lives. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, Downs Crematorium
14th February 2012 – 21st Sh’vat 5772