Photo Credit: Marc Gronich
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver at the rostrum in the front of the Assembly Chamber speaking to his colleagues and gaveling the session to order.

Many know 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, humble human being and a person who quietly performed acts of chesed. Hee was also known as someone who loved to eat deli, go to New York Rangers games, and play basketball.

“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.”

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“He was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met,” Ron Canestrari, who was chosen by Silver in 2007 to be Assembly majority leader, told The Jewish Press. “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.”

Silver was convicted on federal corruption and bribery charges in 2015 and was ultimately incarcerated at Otisville, Orange County, in 2020. In declining health, he was transferred to the Devens Federal Medical Center in Ayer, MA, in May of 2021. Many consider his conviction to be controversial.

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 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 current Assembly speaker, Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) said in a statement: “I am saddened to learn of the passing of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. 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 Shelley 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.”

Dov Hikind recalled an instance when Silver told his Democratic colleagues to lay off the Brooklyn Democrat. “He always had my back,” Hikind told The Jewish Press. “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.”

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) recalled of Silver. “It’s unfortunate the general media will recognize him for being convicted [of] corruption and bribery 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. He 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 members’ 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.”

Rabbi Yisroel Rubin, director of the Capital District Chabad, was one of many rabbonim who had a close relationship with Silver.

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“I remember he had a public Megillah reading, a Tu B’Shvat celebration for the New Year for Trees, and a ceremony for the Rebbe’s birthday,” Rubin told The Jewish Press. “The Tu B’Shvat 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.

Then there were the backroom meetings held with special people from the Jewish community. Among those who had unfettered 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 for 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,” said Rapps, who also writes editorials for The Jewish Press. “He had a silver tongue when arguing cases in court. He was more than just the Assemblyspeaker. 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 also recalled 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. Shelly would sit there and enjoy every last bite,” Rapps recalled.

“Now that he is in shamayim, G-d knows everything about each and every one of us,” Hikind said. “We may be able to fool each other but you can’t fool [G-d]. 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 Wednesday, January 26. He is survived by his wife, Rosa, and their four children, Edward, Esther, Janine and Michelle as well as several grandchildren. 

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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.