Many knew Sheldon Silver as an Orthodox Jewish Democratic assemblyman from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but to his friends and those closest to him he was described as a mensch, a proud Jew, brilliant political strategist, shrewd negotiator, protector of his colleagues, a humble human being and a person who quietly performed acts of chesed.
Socially, he was known as someone who loved to eat deli, go to New York Rangers games and play basketball. Of the several people interviewed for this story no one spoke about him as a family man or someone who loved to spend time with his wife, four children or grandchildren. All the comments were centered around Silver in the context of his relationship with the government.
Because of his conviction on corruptions and bribery charges in 2015, some people refused comment for this story, including politicians as well as the rabbi and gabbai from the Bialystoker Synagogue, where Silver celebrated his bar mitzvah and davened regularly his entire life.
Silver was first elected to the New York State Assembly in 1977 at age 33. The seat became vacant when the incumbent assemblyman was appointed to a judgeship. Silver held onto the seat for 38 years, the last 21 years as speaker of the assembly. Eleven days shy of his 71st birthday, he stepped down as speaker of the assembly and spent the final 10 months in the lower house as a rank-and-file member seated in the back row of the chamber.
The comments from those who knew him well were praiseworthy and intertwined their positive remarks with the events that eventually led to Silver’s downfall of being convicted on federal corruption and bribery charges. Originally convicted on November 30, 2015, Silver spent four-and-a-half years and millions of dollars in legal fees for a defense that ultimately led to his incarceration, no matter how hard he tried to remain a free man amidst numerous appeals. He reported to federal prison at Otisville, Orange County, on August 26, 2020. In declining health, he was transferred to the Devens Federal Medical Center in Ayer, Massachusetts, in May of 2021.
“For him to do a chesed was so fundamental it was part of his DNA,” recalled former Assemblyman Dov Hikind. “It’s painful to know about the difficulties he faced the last number of years. He was a really, really good person. I considered him a dear, dear friend. The guy was a super mensch.”
Hikind recalled an instance when Silver told his Democratic colleagues to lay off the Brooklyn Democrat who represented Borough Park.
“I never spoke about this. I never discussed this with anyone. He always had my back,” Hikind told The Jewish Link. “I remember him telling me that there were members of the Democratic Caucus who wanted me thrown out because I would endorse this Republican, that Republican, whenever I thought a Republican was better. He understood where I was coming from. He protected me. He was a good person. It was a very difficult job being the Assembly Speaker. He had to represent the most liberal members to conservative members such as myself.”
In 2007, Silver chose then-Assemblyman Ron Canestrari, from Cohoes, Albany County, to be the majority leader, running how the bills flow during each day of the legislative session. He served in that position for five years.
“He was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met,” Canestrari told The Jewish Link. “He cared greatly about the state of New York. He wanted to ensure that the least of us in the state were taken care of with whatever we would do at the state level. Certainly, without Shelly Silver there would be no pre-K program in the state of New York; that’s for sure. He contributed a great deal to the state.
“I hate to see the last few years overshadow all the good that he did. That’s unfortunate. I’m afraid that all his accomplishments are going to be a footnote to the arrest, conviction and imprisonment, and that’s a tragedy in the classic sense,” Canestrari said.
Preceding Silver in the role as speaker of the assembly was Saul Weprin. Two of Weprin’s sons, Mark and David, succeeded their father in office as a member.
“Shelly sought consensus,” Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Hollis, Queens), first elected in 2010, recalled. “It’s unfortunate the general media will recognize him for being convicted of corruption and going to jail but that wasn’t the Shelly we all knew. The media would portray him as someone who would twist arms. That wasn’t who Shelly was. He was really a member’s member. He loved the institution. He had so much respect for the history of the Assembly. The members of the Democratic conference were very important to him. He would take into consideration all their views, whether he agreed with them or not. It’s unfortunate the way he ended his career.”
Weprin saw a lot of similarities between Silver and his father.
“He was basically a down-to-earth guy. It didn’t change his personality, being speaker. My father also never let being speaker get to his head. He was always down to earth. Like Shelly, he also didn’t have a driver and security detail. He was also a member’s member.”
Weprin was melancholy over the manner in which Silver ended a brilliant political career. “It’s a great loss. Unfortunately, he ended his career being incarcerated. I hope Shelly’s memory will be for a blessing for all the good things he did for so many people for so many years.”
The current Assembly Speaker released the following statement: “I am saddened to learn of the passing of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver,” said Carl Heastie (D-Bronx). “He was a fighter for his constituents, and his work to rebuild lower Manhattan after the terrible events of 9/11 will never be forgotten. I will remember Shelly for his many legislative accomplishments. For years he was the lone voice in the room pushing back against many regressive policies that would have harmed so many New Yorkers, and he presided over landmark laws to improve the lives of our most vulnerable residents.”
Rabbi Yisroel Rubin, director of the Capital District Chabad, was one of many rabbonim who had a close relationship with Silver. “I remember he had a public Megillah reading, a Tu B’Shevat celebration for the New Year for trees and a ceremony for the Rebbe’s birthday,” Rabbi Rubin told The Jewish Link. “The Tu B’Shevat ceremony became the longest-running tradition in the Assembly. He tried to promote Jewish events as much as he could.”
Silver was in attendance when Rabbi Rubin opened a kosher pizza shop in Albany during the 1970s. The celebration of the Rebbe’s birthday was always co-hosted with Rabbi Shmuel Butman, director of the Crown Heights-based Lubavitch Youth Organization, who took the occasion to hand out samples of shmurah matzah and open the day’s legislative session with a daily prayer. He would cap off the event asking lawmakers, from the speaker’s rostrum, to give tzedakah as he held out a pushka so lawmakers could make their small donation. Those days are gone and may never be seen again, but the show came with Silver’s blessing.
Among those who appreciated access to Silver was Dennis Rapps, executive director of COLPA, the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, an organization of volunteer lawyers that advocates the position of the Orthodox Jewish community on legal issues affecting religious rights and liberties in the United States.
“For me, he was like my big brother. He was always there. Always had an open door,” Rapps told The Jewish Link. “He had a silver tongue when arguing cases in court. He was more than just the Assembly Speaker. He was a very good lawyer, he knew his way around the courts, he knew how to speak to judges and he won his cases. I was there with him.”
Rapps had a similar recollection about Silver as Weprin, recalling Silver as having a commitment to all things Jewish. “He was always there for somebody,” Rapps said. “He had a lifelong commitment to help people. To use the government to benefit the general Jewish community.”
Schmulka Bernstein’s, known as Bernstein on Essex, was one of Silver’s favorite places to eat on the Lower East Side. It was the first kosher Chinese restaurant in New York City. It closed its doors during the 1990s after a 40-year run. “When he walked into the deli, Chang, the head waiter, would bring Shelly an end piece of pastrami dripping in fat. Shelly would sit there and devour it,” Rapps recalled.
“Now that he is in shamayim, heaven, God knows everything about each and every one of us,” Hikind said. “We may be able to fool each other but you can’t fool the guy upstairs. He [Shelly] will be rewarded accordingly for the amazing stuff that he did and for often being courageous dealing with things that were not easy to deal with.”
Silver’s funeral was held at the Bialystoker Synagogue on January 26. Silver is survived by his wife, Rosa, and their four children, Edward, Esther, Janine and Michelle, as well as several grandchildren.