In 1994, I introduced Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to a group of Jewish leaders at the Young Israel of Forest Hills. I used the words that the Megillah used to describe Mordechai: “He sought the good of his people.” Nothing in the years since has changed that opinion. Yet, as I write this obituary, I cannot help but think of the words King David used to eulogize an ancestor of Mordechai, King Saul: “Woe how the mighty have fallen.” Like most people who accomplish significant things, Sheldon Silver was a man with a mixed legacy. He deserves to be remembered for the entirety of his work. Hatzalah, Ohel, the Met Council on Jewish Poverty, and many other Torah and chesed institutions are his legacy. He championed the cause of agunos and secured the right to burial according to halachah.
Sheldon Silver was born on the Lower East Side on February 13, 1944. He attended RJJ and went on to graduate from Yeshiva University. The Lower East Side was the neighborhood of immigrants where Jewish life thrived. Yet the symbol that you “made it” as an immigrant in America was that you left the Lower East Side. The neighborhood declined as the children of immigrants left for more upscale areas. Sheldon Silver was one of the few who refused to abandon the “old neighborhood.” He worked to make the Lower East Side a place where immigrants from around the world could begin new lives in America, while preserving it as a thriving bastion of Jewish life. He attended the daily minyan at the Bialystoker Synagogue, played basketball at the Educational Alliance, and was a major force behind the United Jewish Council of the Lower East Side.
After graduating from Brooklyn Law School, Shelly became involved in community affairs. He was instrumental in obtaining funding for the Bialystoker Synagogue and the United Jewish Council to build the Bialystoker Home for the Aged. His legal career and community involvement led him to the Harry S. Truman Democratic Club. Leaders of the club encouraged him to run for office. In 1974, he ran for the City Council and lost to Miriam Friedlander.
My first encounter with the Harry S. Truman Democratic Club came in April 1976, when I was the New York Student Coordinator in the Presidential campaign of Senator Henry M. Jackson. On Primary Day, I dispatched a bus load of Yeshiva University students to the club, which had endorsed Senator Jackson. Our partnership paid off, as the Jackson slate swept all five delegate spots in the district. In September, I played a similar role in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s first campaign for the US Senate. This once again involved working with the Truman Club, which was backing Moynihan for the United States Senate and Sheldon Silver for the New York State Assembly. September 14, 1976, was another successful night. Moynihan narrowly defeated Representative Bella S. Abzug and went on to serve in the US Senate for 24 years. Sheldon Silver won a five-way primary with 39% of the vote and went on to serve in the Assembly for 39 years, consistently winning re-election by large margins.
Others were more vociferous in claiming to represent the Jewish community, but it was Shelly Silver who actually sponsored and passed some of the most important legislation dealing with the practical needs of the Torah-observant community. He steadily maintained that he was not a Jewish leader. What he concentrated on was mastering the legislative process and building alliances.
One of the most painful issues in our community is the plight of agunos, women who are unable to remarry due to the husband’s refusal to give a get (a Jewish divorce). Sheldon Silver sponsored and passed two laws to address the issue. The first get law requires that the parties to a civil divorce must remove obstacles to remarriage before the civil divorce can be granted. The second get law allows judges to consider the refusal to give a get when dividing the marital assets in a civil divorce case. These laws did not solve the agunah problem, but they have saved many women from becoming agunos. While the number of cases in which the laws have actually been implemented is small, the laws have an important deterrent effect.
When Hatzalah first began to operate, it was opposed by municipalities, health departments, law enforcement, and volunteer ambulance corps throughout the state. Hatzalah members were stopped by police on their way to calls. Assemblymember Silver sponsored and passed the law that recognizes Hatzalah as a statewide volunteer ambulance corps.
Halachah requires burial within 24 hours of death and forbids autopsies. The New Yok City Medical Examiner’s Office issues death certificates, releases bodies for burial, and performs autopsies. The Medical Examiner’s Office often delayed issuing death certificates and performed autopsies on Torah-observant Jews, even over the objections of family members. Assemblymember Silver passed a law that allowed families to object to an autopsy on religious grounds. The Medical Examiner could only conduct an autopsy in such cases if a court ordered that public safety or public health require it.
Despite the law, the Queens Medical Examiner’s Office continued to delay issuing death certificates and perform autopsies. Under the auspices of Assemblymember Nettie Mayersohn, a meeting was held at Queens Borough Hall for rabbis, community leaders, public officials, and the Medical Examiner’s Office to discuss how the new law would be implemented. It was agreed that people wishing to stop an autopsy could call me and I would contact the Medical Examiner’s Office. Once I stated an objection, the Medical Examiner could not perform an autopsy or delay releasing the remains without a court order. At first, I would get calls on an almost weekly basis from frantic families, rabbis, and funeral directors. In each case, I succeeded in preventing the autopsy. After a while, the Queens Medical Examiner asked to meet me for lunch. He said that he realized that I was serious about preventing autopsies and that he wanted us to have a friendly relationship. From then on, the frantic calls were few and far between. The Medical Examiner’s office realized that they would have to comply with the law. The right to burial according to halachah was secure.
Assemblymember Silver’s efforts on behalf of the Torah community often sparked significant opposition from progressives and even from some Jewish organizations that objected to any legislation that addressed religious concerns. Silver was able to pass such legislation because of his skill at building coalitions. He realized that in a diverse society, we would have to accommodate the concerns of other communities if we wanted them to accommodate our concerns.
In 1991, Saul Weprin of Queens became Assembly Speaker. He appointed Sheldon Silver Chair of the Ways and Means Committee, the most important committee in the Assembly. Sheldon Silver was in Israel when it became known that Speaker Weprin was seriously ill. Many of his colleagues urged Shelly to return to New York and seek the Speakership. Silver replied that Saul Weprin was still the Speaker and that he was praying for his full recovery. Sheldon Silver was named Interim Speaker of the Assembly with the provision that he would automatically become Speaker if there was a vacancy. Saul Weprin tragically passed away on February 11, 1994. Sheldon Silver succeeded him as Speaker.
The Speaker is by far the most powerful member of the Assembly. He assigns members to committees and appoints the committee chairs. He also decides how much money is allocated to individual members for projects in their districts. The Speaker, Governor, and State Senate Majority Leader negotiate the State budget and legislation. During his tenure as Speaker, Sheldon Silver was regarded by many as the most powerful political figure in New York State.
Because of the significant power of the Governor, Speaker, and State Senate Majority Leader, New York State government has been described as “three men in a room,” who make decisions that are rubber-stamped by the members of the State Legislature. Speaker Silver was often described as a power broker who ruled by fiat with a heavy hand. This was an exaggeration. There were several keys to his success.
He consulted frequently with his members and had his finger on their pulse. He knew what each member wanted and needed. He would allow them to take center stage when things went well, while taking the blame himself when things went wrong. He worked to build consensus among his members. He skillfully negotiated based on that consensus. Once consensus was reached, he expected his members to be loyal to the team.
While many politicians are show horses, primarily interested in being on the front page of the newspaper or on the nightly news, Sheldon Silver was the ultimate work horse. While his colleagues often spent time together drinking and playing cards, Shelly was neither a drinker nor a gambler. He spent his time studying the budget, as well as drafting and passing legislation. He was a master of the minutiae of State government.
Governor George Pataki and State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno came to budget negotiations with aides who could fill them in on the details. Speaker Silver arrived on his own. He had mastered the details and did not need aides to fill him in. His superior knowledge of the ins and outs of State government often gave him the edge in negotiations.
As Speaker, Sheldon Silver played a key role in allocating funds to non-profit organizations. Institutions like Ohel, Met Council on Jewish Poverty, and many others have been able to better serve our community because of Speaker Silver’s support.
In 2000, Speaker Silver faced a coup from other Democrats, including some from the Queens delegation, who sought to remove him as Speaker. I was asked to call Queens Assemblymembers to encourage them to support Speaker Silver. Going against some of my friends in the Queens delegation may not have been in my personal best interest, but I knew that the interests of the community came first and there was no doubt that those interests would best be served by having Sheldon Silver continue as Speaker. I made calls on his behalf and encouraged rabbis and community leaders to do the same. The Queens delegation supported him, and Silver had the votes to remain as Speaker.
Sheldon Silver was not a paragon of civic virtue. He was a skilled politician. He could play hardball with the best of them. He rewarded his friends and punished his enemies. His skills as a politician made his achievements on behalf of the community possible.
In 2015, Sheldon Silver was arrested on charges that he steered State funds to a lab in exchange for the referral of lucrative cases to his law firm. He was immediately ousted as Speaker. Upon his conviction, he was automatically expelled from the Assembly. His conviction was overturned in 2017. He was retried and convicted again in 2018 and was sentenced to six and a half years in prison in 2020.
President Donald Trump was reported to be planning to pardon Silver before leaving office. He changed his mind when New York State Republicans objected.
Sheldon Silver got a brief furlough from prison due to concerns over COVID-19 but was ordered to return to prison after a few days. He suffered from cancer and kidney disease. On three occasions, the Bureau of Prisons recommended that he be released for medical treatment. But a vindictive Justice Department insisted that he remain in prison.
I am not in any way condoning Sheldon Silver’s misdeeds. Sheldon Silver deserved to be held accountable for his actions. He paid a heavy price. He went from being a colossus to a pariah. In his last years, he was a pathetic shell of what he had once been.
Sheldon Silver’s corruption is a tragic and shameful part of his legacy. But they do not define his legacy. He deserves to be remembered for the totality of his career. Looking back on his career as a whole, I will stand by the words I used to introduce him 28 years ago: He was a champion for his people.