Orthodox rabbinical leader Steven Dworken dies at 58

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NEW YORK — 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.

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 world of modern Orthodoxy, Dworken was a product of Yeshiva University and 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."

A veteran pulpit rabbi in Stamford, Conn.; Portland, Maine; and Linden, N.J., Dworken was known to reach out to rabbis in the field.

Whether 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 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 rabbinical council shortly after its revered leader, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, stepped down after almost four decades at its helm.

Dworken reached out to the rank-and-file, while cementing new ties with modern Orthodox rabbis in Israel and the United Kingdom. The Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America 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.

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. He helped steer the Orthodox establishment through the sexual abuse scandal of Rabbi Baruch Lanner, and defended the inclusion of material about gay victims of Nazism in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Friends described Dworken as deceptively warm and funny, but his modesty "hid his wisdom and common sense," said Weinreb.

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.

Many wanted to remember him as young and vibrant. 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 at Beth El Cemetery in Paramus, N.J.