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Former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver dead at age 77

Sheldon Silver, the former Speaker of the New York Assembly who was serving a 6 1/2-year sentence on federal corruption charges, died Monday at a federal medical center in Massachusetts after battling cancer and kidney disease. He was 77.

An Orthodox Jew born to Russian immigrants, and Democrat from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Silver was one of the most powerful figures in the state for two decades. He was first elected to the Assembly in 1976, and picked as interim speaker in 1994, replacing Saul Weprin, who suffered a severe stroke, and became speaker after Weprin’s death. On track to be the longest-tenured speaker in state history, he missed breaking Oswald David Heck’s record of 22 years by a year.

As an observant Jew, Silver would not work on Shabbat so that when he was speaker, no significant decisions would be made in the Assembly from sundown on Friday until sunset on Saturday.

Before his conviction, Silver received an honorary doctorate from Yeshiva University, where he obtained his bachelor’s degree in 1965. He also was honored by Jewish federations and feted by the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush. He was a mainstay of New York legislative missions to Israel. Silver made his last visit to Israel with former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to show solidarity with the Jewish state during Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Sheldon Silver at the NY Dems convenstion in October 2006

Sheldon Silver at the NY Dems convenstion in October 2006 Image by Robert A. Cumins

He was arrested in 2015 for receiving $4 million in bribes through two schemes over 15 years. Silver also refused to disclose payments he was receiving from a New York law firm, Goldberg & Iryami, which seeks reductions in city real estate taxes on behalf of its clients.

The New York Post reported that after his arrest Silver repeatedly turned down offers from the rabbi at his neighborhood shul, the historic Bialystoker Synagogue on the Lower East Side, to conduct a special Mi Shebeirach prayer during Shabbat morning services. The prayer is said for those who are ill, or undergoing hardship.

Defending himself from corruption charges, which involved his work with a nonprofit group – the United Jewish Council of the East Side – Silver once claimed that he was mistakenly identified as another Sheldon Silver, a non-observant Jew originally from Minnesota – a claim that was immediately disputed. The nonprofit aimed to block low-income housing in his district.

Silver’s arrest sent shock waves through New York’s Jewish establishment, where he was well-known and generally highly regarded. Jewish leaders issued letters of support during his trial. He was found guilty of all seven counts against him, including fraud and extortion. He was convicted again in another trial in 2018 after an appeals court ruling overturned the 2015 conviction, based on a 2016 Supreme Court decision that changed key definitions used in the jury instructions.

After a long battle to avoid jail, Silver was sentenced in the summer of 2020.

Former President Donald Trump considered granting him clemency, after being lobbied by Orthodox leaders, in his final days in office. The effort foundered after it was reported by the media. Last year, Silver requested to serve the remainder of his sentence confined to his the Lower East Side home. But the Manhattan federal prosecutor’s office vigorously opposed Silver’s release, as did some lawmakers.

JTA contributed to this report.

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