Keny Deren, the principal of Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh for 30 years, and the matriarch of a prominent Lubavitch family, died Tuesday, Jan. 21, after suffering from a long illness. She was 83.
Deren was the daughter of Chaya and Rabbi Sholom Posner, one of the first Lubavitch couples dispatched by Rebbe Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn to engage in Jewish outreach across the United States. In 1943 the Posner family was sent from Chicago to Pittsburgh to found what would become the Yeshiva Schools and Lubavitch Center of Pittsburgh. Deren began teaching in the school while she was still a teenager, and helped to foster its eventual growth from a handful of students to well over 400.
In 1949 she married Rabbi Yechezkel Deren, a Polish-born yeshiva student who fled the Nazis by escaping through Japan and occupied Shanghai. The couple lived for a time in Davenport, Iowa, where Yechezkel Deren served as a shochet (ritual slaughterer), but soon returned to Pittsburgh, where Keny Deren resumed her work at Yeshiva Schools.
Her impact at the school and beyond was great, as she inspired students and friends alike to connect deeply with their Judaism, and offered counsel and guidance to countless members of the community.
She was instrumental in convincing many families who were not Lubavitch at the time to send their children to Yeshiva, according to a friend, Charles Saul.
William Rudolph recalled meeting Deren in the late 1980s, when Deren suggested that he and his wife, Lieba, consider enrolling their children in Yeshiva.
“Even though it wasn’t really aligned with our practice of Judaism at the time, we were totally besotted with her personality, her affect and her unbelievable commitment and passion,” said Rudolph, who has two children now married to grandchildren of Deren’s. “She was like royalty.”
Rudolph was one of many community members who frequently sought Deren’s advice and opinion.
“I never gave a speech without first running it by her,” he said. “She would critique it in such a nice way.”
Deren became one of the first recipients of the Rudolph Jewish Communal Professional award and the first day school administrator to receive that award.
She was loved by her students, Rudolph said, recalling a conversation he had while driving three Yeshiva teens home after serving as babysitters for a community event.
“I asked them, ‘Do you like school?’ Rudolph said. “They said, ‘we love school. We love Mrs. Deren.’ These were ninth- and 10th-graders. She just had an influence on people. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was amazing.”
And her influence reached well beyond her students.
“The woman has been a major influence on our lives,” Rudolph said. “We are forever grateful to her. I can’t say enough about her. She’s one of those people that you’re lucky to meet one of in your lifetime.”
Individuals and couples facing lifestyle changes and conflicts often sought Deren’s counsel, said her friend, Sharon Saul.
“She guided me and many of us in my generation,” Saul said. “And I’m aware that she saved many marriages with the input and the guidance she gave them. Many times she just could see the very practical things they needed to be educated about. People respected her opinion, did what she said, and it worked.”
She garnered the respect of others by showing them respect, said Saul, whose children attended Yeshiva Schools under Deren’s tutelage.
“To have met her was to understand her intellect and her wisdom and her regalness,” Saul said. “She spoke to others with respect. You just felt liked and validated and heard. And her way was articulate, and eloquent and warm. When someone like that authentically speaks to you from their heart, it touches you.”
Even when disciplining students, Deren acted with gentleness and kindness, Saul said.
“She managed to command so much respect that she didn’t need to wield her authority in an authoritative kind of way,” Saul said. “Each girl felt loved and cared about.
“She taught not just from her head, but from her heart and soul,” Saul continued, “and it just really came across to her students. We wish we could clone her and put her in schools everywhere.”
Deren leaves a lasting legacy through her more than 100 descendants, many of whom are serving as Chabad emissaries throughout the world, including Israel and Moscow.
“Her youngest daughter, Chanie, is married to the Chief Rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar,” said Charles Saul. “Her daughter, Blumie, is the assistant director of Yeshiva Schools and is married to Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, who is the head of the Lubavitch community in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Her son, Yisroel Deren, is director of Lubavitch in Northeast U.S.”
Deren is survived by her children: Rabbi Yisrael (Vivi) of Stamford, Conn.; Sonia (Rabbi Elyakim) Wolff of Morristown, N.J.; Chavie (Rabbi Leibel) Altein of Brooklyn, N.Y.; Blumie (Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld) of Pittsburgh; Rabbi Yosef (Batsheva) Deren of Pittsburgh; Rabbi Mendel (Braindel) of Lod, Israel; and Chanie (Rabbi Berel) Lazar of Moscow.
She is also survived by her siblings Rabbi Zalman Posner, Rabbi Leibel Posner, Rabbi Zushia Posner, Mrs. Bassie Garelik and Mrs. Sara Rivkah Sasonkin.
She was preceded in death by her husband in 1978.
Interment was at the Lubavitch Center Section at Homewood Cemetery. A memorial fund in her memory has been set up at Yeshiva Schools.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)