By Dr. Asher Mansdorf
New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver will be visiting the Five Towns on Tuesday, July 22, and speaking with members of the community at the Lawrence Country Club from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at an event sponsored by the Five Towns Committee to Elect Todd Kaminsky Many know of Mr. Silver but do not “know” him. I would like to introduce him to you.
With roots deeply embedded in Manhattan’s Lower East Side Jewish community, Sheldon Silver, the longtime Speaker of the New York State Assembly, has grown to become the most powerful Orthodox Jewish elected leader in the nation.
He is, without question, the preeminent voice for the Jewish community in our state government, but his many successful efforts on our behalf have seemingly gone unnoticed.
Sheldon Silver is a graduate of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, Yeshiva University, and Brooklyn Law School. He has resided all of his life within three blocks of where he was raised. With grown children residing on Long Island and grandchildren in our yeshivas, the Silvers are regular visitors here.
Sheldon Silver first won election to the New York State Assembly in 1977, and was elected Speaker of the House by a majority of its members in 1994, a leadership post he has held ever since.
When asked during a gathering of Jewish lawyers why he would submit himself to the rigors of public life, Silver spoke in great length about the Jewish obligation to fight injustice and about the potential for making a difference that is inherent in holding elected office.
Wherever there has been a need for reasonable accommodation, in government, in the workplace, or in schools, Shelly Silver has been there to rectify the situation.
If you are a Sabbath observer who has been able to take, on an alternate date, the SAT or a civil service test, the bar exam, or the medical boards scheduled on days of religious observance, you can thank Shelly Silver for the legislation that guarantees you the right.
If you have lost a loved one and are facing an overly ambitious medical examiner or coroner who is preparing to perform an autopsy when there is no compelling public necessity, the Silver Autopsy Law provides a religious exemption.
Under the Uniformed Anatomical Gift Act, there was a time when states were rushing to harvest organs. Shelly Silver wrote into law an exception requiring doctors to contact a hierarchy of the deceased’s family in order to obtain permission to harvest in cases where there are religious objections to organ transplantation.
There was a time when state law, which said that death occurred with the cessation of brain stem activity, conflicted with Jewish law, which says heart stoppage. Shelly changed the law to respect the wishes of the deceased’s family.
We will not forget Shelly’s landmark 1983 Get Law which established—to the extent permitted by constitutional restrictions regarding religion and government—limited matrimonial protections for Jewish women by ensuring that a civil divorce could only be decreed once barriers to remarriage (i.e. lack of a get) had been removed.
In 1997, Shelly chaired a series of highly publicized hearings to address the issue of Holocaust assets being held in Swiss financial institutions. Armed with the testimony from those hearings, he authored and shepherded to enactment the toughest state Holocaust justice legislation in the nation.
And that year, when Chassidic and Orthodox Jews complained of discrimination by car rental companies, Silver led an investigation and passed legislation barring such discrimination.
Silver authored the law that now prevents insurance companies from denying life and health coverage to those who have traveled to Israel in the past.
From 1977 through 2000, Shelly passed several kosher laws that were overturned by the federal courts. Working with the office of the attorney general, Silver convened a task force of Jewish community leaders to rewrite the kosher laws.
The Kosher Law Protection Act of 2004 requires vendors who sell kosher food to disclose in detail the basis for their representation that such foods are, indeed, kosher. This year, he strengthened the Act by advancing legislation making food inspection violations, including for kosher certification, available online and accessible to all consumers.
Early in his Assembly career, Silver authored a law guaranteeing Jewish parents the right to have a bris performed in a hospital when the mother and/or baby were hospitalized for eight days or longer.
Silver’s strong advocacy, legislation, and budget appropriations for the funding of fertility services are helping couples bring children into their lives and communities, earning him Bonei Olam’s Tribute of Hope and Appreciation Award in 2011.
As Speaker of the Assembly, Silver uses his considerable authority to ensure that yeshivas and Jewish service agencies receive a fair share of state support for the most needy in our communities. Shelly is the protector of Hatzalah, as demonstrated by the vast amount of legislation he has advanced or defeated.
Thanks to the Speaker’s leadership, this year’s budget increases funding for mandated services at yeshivas. As a result, funding at Yeshiva Darchei Torah increased to more than $1 million, HALB to more than $800,000, and HAFTR a similar number. Each local yeshiva received funds in proportion to its student-body size. This fall, if the voters of New York pass the $2 billion Smart Schools Bond Act, Mr. Silver has already inserted language guaranteeing that yeshivas will be permitted to use a significant portion of the funds consistent with the purposes of the Bond Act.
And just last month, the Speaker reached agreement on the placement of special-needs children in private schools and the timely reimbursement of related tuition costs.
We will not forget that Sheldon Silver is one of the leading advocates for Israel. He has led numerous state and national delegations to our Jewish homeland and you will consistently find him speaking out against Iran and Hamas.
Early in his career, Mr. Silver authored an “Arab boycott bill” to prohibit the state from doing business with any company that supported the Arab boycott of Israel. Last year, he authored and brought to enactment the Iran Divestment Act, barring individuals and companies who invest in Iran’s energy sector from doing business with government agencies in the state of New York. v