Leon Dworsky

Leon Dworsky: 11/25/1925 - 7/20/2004

Family: Wife, Phyllis, and three children, Avraham (Allan), Susan and Joyce.

A longtime leader of the Chevre Kadisha, Leon was a joyful, opinionated and occasionally irascible figure, beloved by his religious school students and admired by many for his scrupulous attention to detail, his sharp wit, and his passionate defense of all things Jewish.

Leon was born in Raleigh to Dinah and Solomon H. Dworsky. At the age of two, his parents moved to Durham. There, his father — a Polish-born immigrant who earned a smicha, or formal rabbinic ordination, from the Mirrer Yeshiva — opened a pawnshop. Years later, Leon would run the shop.

Leon attended Durham High School and began his studies at Duke University. Just as he was settling in, he was drafted and served for two and a half years in in New Delhi, at the message center for the China Burma-India military theater. Years later, his home bore signs of his India stay with intricately carved ivory chess pieces and elephants, which he displayed in his living room.

The Dworsky family often visited relatives in New London, Conn. On one such visit, while at the beach, a mutual friend introduced Leon to his future wife, Phyllis, of Springfield Mass. She recalled a sweet boy with a Southern accent “you could cut with a knife.” He soon invited her to spend Shabbat with his relatives. On Saturday night, the couple went out to sit on the rocks by the beach and Leon proposed. They were married one year later in 1949.

After working in New York City and Reading Penn., the couple moved back to Durham so Leon could help his father in the pawnshop. Phyllis gave birth to Avraham in 1951, followed by Susan in 1953 and Joyce, one year later.

The Dworsky family belonged to Beth El Synagogue, which until Rabbi Steven Sager’s arrival in 1978, conducted services in a “Conservadox” tradition, with some still adhering to separate seating between men and women. Leon, and a few other families were unhappy with the move to egalitarian services, but at the suggestion of Rabbi Sager they worked out a solution for an Orthodox minyan on the lower level of the Watts Street synagogue. For the rest of his life, Leon worshipped downstairs with a small group of other Orthodox men and women, separated by a michitza. He and Phyllis were the backbone of the Orthodox community.

In the mid-1960s, Leon became the president of Beth El’s Chevre Kadisha Burial Society. During that time, society members were widely sought out by Jewish communities in North and South Carolina. They performed purification rituals and helped other synagogues set up similar burial societies.

After the pawnshop closed in the early 1970s, Leon became a camera technician working from the couple’s apartment. Later, he took a basic computer class at Durham Technical College, taught himself computer programming, and was offered a job as a contractor for a local telephone company. He was exceedingly competent and highly respected for his work.

Alongside his professional work, Leon was active in the Jewish community, volunteering not only at his synagogue but also with the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill. In 1993, the federation honored him with the Sarah and Mutt Evans Leadership Award.

But among his community pursuits, Leon’s passion was teaching. He was a highly respected teacher at Beth El’s religious school who treated his young charges as adults. (See accompanying letter Leon sent out to parents.)

“The kids loved him,” said Phyllis. “He was a great teacher.”

Leon and Phyllis were charter members of the Lerner Hebrew Day School in Durham.

Ever exacting in his standards, Leon was an authority in the community when it came to Roberts Rules of Order and Jewish rules of mourning.

His friend Edward Halperin used to say that Leon didn’t have opinions; “he had convictions.”

Leon died suddenly of a stroke. He was 78.