Rabbi Herschel Billet was home with the flu Monday and couldn’t answer when he received a call from Rabbi Steven Dworken, his longtime friend and colleague.
But Billet, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, wasn’t surprised when he played the message.
Dworken “just said, ‘It’s nothing much, just calling to see how you’re doing, Harry,’ ” Billet recalled.
Several hours later, Dworken, 58, executive vice president of the Orthodox rabbinical group, was on the phone with his sister-in-law when he suffered a fatal heart attack.
His many friends and colleagues were deeply shaken by Dworken’s death, but not surprised that it happened while he was reaching out to others.
“He knew how to use the phone. He was always on the telephone, always in touch with people,” said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, the congregational arm of modern Orthodoxy. “He was a man who touched everybody in the Jewish world.”
Some 1,000 mourners attended Tuesday’s memorial service for Dworken at Yeshiva University in New York City.
Hundreds of rabbis from all denominations and from all over the country arrived for the service. The chief rabbis of Israel and the United Kingdom sent personal messages.
Like many in the modern Orthodox organizational world, Dworken was a product of Yeshiva University, and many at his memorial service said he remained deeply loyal to the school and its outgoing president, Rabbi Norman Lamm.
One characteristic defined Dworken, according to those who knew him.
“He was a rabbi’s rabbi,” Weinreb said. “Hundreds of rabbis looked to him for advice. He believed in the American rabbi, and his cause was helping rabbis do their jobs.”
For many who knew Dworken, that might have been the most important fact about his professional life. A veteran pulpit rabbi in Stamford, Conn.; Portland, Maine; and Linden, N.J., Dworken was known to reach out to rabbis in the field, including those outside the major metropolitan areas.
Whether it was discussing a sermon, mediating contractual issues between rabbis and synagogues or guiding a rabbi through a matter with a congregant, Dworken was always there, friends said.
“He may have been in touch with people regularly on the phone, but it was a matter of him going out to be with people, visiting with them, not really caring about organizational or procedural matters,” said Rabbi Moshe Krupka, the O.U.’s director of community and synagogue services.
Dworken was more than a decade older than Krupka, but that didn’t prevent the senior rabbi from treating the younger man with respect and friendship.
“Not every time we spoke did we agree; in fact, sometimes we disagreed,” Krupka said. “But whether it was procedural, or about outlook, ultimately we were colleagues and friends and were going to do the best that we could. I always knew he was a man of integrity, whose heart and soul were given over to the Jewish people.”
Dworken was praised as a mensch, a straightforward, soft-spoken man less concerned with political activism or political maneuvering than with counseling rabbis.
“He would give advice all the time to rabbis, and he would make sure he was in the background, that the people he was advising would get the credit,” O.U. President Harvey Blitz said.
Dworken joined the RCA shortly after its revered leader, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, stepped down after almost four decades at its helm.
It was a time when RCA members were “trying to find ourselves again,” Billet said.
“Obviously Rabbi Soloveitchik was irreplaceable, but Steve Dworken gave the RCA focus,” Billet said.
Dworken reached out to the rank-and-file, while cementing new ties with modern Orthodox rabbis in Israel and the United Kingdom. The RCA saw its conference attendance grow and its membership rise to 1,200.
“What he was able to do was retain the older generation while empowering the younger generation, through the force of his character, his concern for others and his burning desire that American Orthodoxy would flourish and be led by true leaders of Torah,” Krupka said.
He retained especially close ties with those like Krupka and Weinreb, and forged closer ties with the Orthodox Union, associates said.
“The RCA has flourished under his tutelage,” Krupka added. “It’s a strong, vibrant, diverse, creative and relevant organization that has lifted the mantle of Torah high for all to admire and emulate.”
Dworken did not avoid taking positions on tough issues, such as hammering out a new code for agunot — women whose husbands refuse to grant them divorces — helping steer the Orthodox establishment through the sexual abuse scandal of Rabbi Baruch Lanner, or defending the inclusion of material about gay victims of Nazism in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Yet “he was a guy who didn’t have an agenda,” Billet added. “He wasn’t a back-stabber and he didn’t play both sides of the fence. What you saw is what you got.”
Friends described Dworken as deceptively warm and funny, but his modesty “hid his wisdom and common sense,” said Weinreb, who joined the RCA when he was a rabbi in Baltimore, at Dworken’s urging.
Dworken was able to accomplish a lot at the RCA with a relatively small budget and just a handful of professionals on his administrative staff, added Blitz.
“In many ways, it was a one-man shop,” Blitz said.
Blitz was just one of many people to talk with Dworken on Monday, when they discussed raising money for Jewish schools in economically ravaged Argentina.
“He sounded absolutely normal,” Blitz recalled. “This just came out of the blue.”
But Dworken had a history of heart trouble: He suffered a heart attack when he was in his 30s. A brother died of a heart attack in his 20s.
Because of that history, Dworken exercised frequently and ate carefully.
“I never expected to participate in his funeral,” Weinreb said. “He was young, vibrant. It just wasn’t on my agenda.”
Some wanted to remember him that way. It was mostly Dworken’s phone messages that Billet needed to erase each day, but “I won’t be deleting that one” from Monday, he said.
A Boston native who lived in Teaneck, N.J., Dworken is survived by his wife, Susan, two daughters, a son and several grandchildren. He was buried Tuesday in Beth El Cemetery in Paramus, N.J.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.