In the week since U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara charged Sheldon Silver with garnering more than $4 million in bribes in kickbacks, the city’s Jewish leaders — as well as the Assembly speaker’s Lower East Side constituents — have been reeling from his downfall.
Many are defending his character, others are questioning it. Some are glad to see a progressive leader at odds with the views of many yeshivish and chasidic voters lose his power.
But those on all sides are weighing the same question: To what extent will Jewish causes be hurt by Silver’s downfall as he loses his place as one-third of the proverbial “three men in a room” who decide things in Albany.
In terms of funding for Jewish nonprofits, all agree it doesn’t look good.
A list detailing member items that politicians allocated to pet causes from the fiscal year 2009-2010, the most recent year available, shows Silver doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to Jewish organizations. (He also gave plenty to non-Jewish causes.) According to the organization SeeThroughNY, the United Jewish Council of The East Side got $424,000; the Lower East Side Tenement Museum received $77,000 and $50,000 was allocated to the Center for Jewish History. Haazinu for Hearing Impaired Children got $48,000, the Eldridge Street Project got $44,000 as did Borough Park-based Nachas Health and Family Network.
And this doesn’t factor in the influence the assembly speaker has on which social service providers get the contracts from state agencies — not to mention how much money those agencies have to allocate.
But though some describe the palpable anxiety among organizations that benefit from Silver’s amassed power as “an earthquake” or “a blizzard,” others say it won’t be quite that bad.
“You lose a powerful and an influential friend, and it’s going to make your job harder, no matter what the merits and strength of your program are,” said Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist at SUNY New Paltz who closely follows state government. “I’m confident many of those programs are of great quality, but it’s good to have friends.”
Any politician is going to advocate for worthy nonprofits in his or her district, but not only did Silver have more power, he also had a better understanding of the needs of his Jewish constituents, said Ezra Friedlander, a political consultant who works with Orthodox nonprofits and political organizations. “He’s always been very sensitive to vulnerable populations, and his understanding of what the community needs are. He’s had the ability to hone in on them for 40 years. It’s not something you can acquire overnight.”
“For [social service] providers it’s a very real concern,” he added. “People like continuity. People are naturally worried when there’s the potential of destruction of someone at the highest level of government understanding what their needs are.”
For example, Silver helped broker the deal that cut down on red tape for families seeking tuition reimbursement for special education programs at private schools, he said, something Jewish organizations have been advocating for years.
But on other legislation that Orthodox Jewish groups have been urging, the speaker’s downfall could have a silver lining. On such issues as private school vouchers and whether religious organizations should be exempt from same-sex marriage requirements, Silver tends to side with the progressives.
“He was a liberal progressive creature, who also goes to shul,” one observer said. “[Borough Park] Assemblyman Dov Hikind, he wears his Jewishness on this sleeve. Shelly, all his political career, was trying to distance himself from any kind of Jewish religious thing. He had to be pressured to go along with anything that would help yeshivas. From what I know, chances might be better [without Silver in power], because he had this complex; he was always worried about being seen as helping of his own.”
But across the East River, Silver’s constituents have stood firm behind him, at least for now.
“They don’t make people as good as Shelly Silver,” one woman said last Friday as she stood with a shopping cart outside East Side Glatt, a kosher butcher’s shop on the Lower East Side.
“He’s a diamond, and any time people need help in this neighborhood, they call Shelly Silver,” said the woman, an Orthodox Jew who wished to remain anonymous but gave her age as 61. What’s more, she said, the crimes a federal prosecutor is now saying he committed “are not typical of him.”
Speaking several hours before the onset of Shabbat, a day after Bharara slammed Silver with five counts of fraud and extortion, the woman seemed to reflect the consensus among Orthodox Jews in the neighborhood who spoke to The Jewish Week.
Silver, who maintains his innocence, has held a seat in the New York State Assembly since 1976 and was elected speaker of that body in 1994, making the shy, soft-spoken politician one of the most powerful people in the state and one of the city’s most important defenders. But he’s also known to Jewish residents of the Lower East Side as a neighbor who grew up in a local tenements building, sent his four children to the same schools as they did and still lives with his wife, Rosa, in one of the area’s co-ops.
The complaints against Silver say he abused his office by obtaining $4 million in bribes and kickbacks over the course of 15 years. One particularly odious allegation is that he used the 9/11 attacks to justify steering $500,000 in public funds to an oncologist who helped him pocket millions of dollars in bogus “referral fees.” As a pretext for the scheme, prosecutors say, he said the funds would advance research into mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer caused by asbestos. Another accusation is that he steered real-estate developers to the same law firm, which, in turn, paid him kickbacks for the business.
But Silver’s neighbors interviewed last Friday found the allegations hard to believe.
Inside East Side Glatt, Baruch Weiss, the shop’s bearded, Yiddish-accented owner, called the charges a “bilbul,” the Yiddish word for libel or smear. “In three weeks,” he said, “they’re going to dismiss everything.”
Not everyone on Grand Street wanted to talk about Silver.
One heavy-set man, waiting for his order at the counter of East Side Glatt, said he didn’t know much about the allegations against Silver. But “if you ask me what I think of the gefilte fish,” he added, motioning to the display of delicacies, “that I can give you an answer about.”
But most weren’t so reluctant.
“I have only good things to say,” said Nathan, 53, a teacher who often helps out at Moishe’s Bakery, as he did last Friday.
“He gets along with everybody,” added Nathan,who declined to give his last name. “I’m friendly with his son. … The wife comes in. She’s very cordial, very nice to everybody.”
Shopping in the grocery store next door, East Side Kosher, another teacher said he, too, knew Silver from the neighborhood.
“If anything is bothering anyone in the community, you can [easily] relay that message to Mr. Silver,” said David Dinter, 33, a math instructor.
The complaints against Silver are “upsetting” to Dinter, who said “the [legal] process has to be played out” before he can believe any of them. But until that happens, Dinter added, he believes Silver’s declaration of innocence.
Silver’s other defenders in the neighborhood include Martin Cohen, 55, who runs a storefront law and business practice on the corner of Grand and Essex, one of the area’s main hubs.
An attorney who has lived on the Lower East Side for 50 years, Cohen said he believes people “in high positions are targeted for special treatment, either positive or negative,” and that being speaker of the Assembly would make anyone a target.
He’s also convinced that the allegations against Silver don’t rise to the level of criminality, said Cohen, whose office is decorated with Jewish art and antiques, including three menorahs. The receptionist’s desk at which he greeted a reporter featured two pushke boxes, one for the Jewish National Fund, another for a kosher food pantry, under a framed, Hebrew version of Pslam 23, a biblical passage.
In Cohen’s view, describing the money Silver received as kickbacks, rather than referral fees, is inaccurate. “Everybody in the real-estate world uses tax-certiary attorneys, and asking people you meet, however you might meet them, to use attorneys you may have some association with is not abusing your office.”
He believes the charges are politically motivated, made by a federal prosecutor eager to improve “his standing and fame,” Cohen said. “I hope that when the final chapter is written, his good name and sterling reputation for being a mensch, a good neighbor and an honest man are restored.”
But outside of the Lower East Side, his support has been steadily waning. After more and more politicians joined the call for him to reisgn as speaker, he confirmed Tuesday that he wouldn't "hinder a succession process," according to The New York Times.
And what about the shanda factor with the demise of yet another Jewish power broker due to accusations of ethical breaches? Thanks to Albany’s widespread corruption, Silver’s fall won’t tarnish the rest of the tribe, said Benjamin, the New Paltz professor.
“It’s not going to be systematically consequential for Jews that a Jewish guy did some bad thing and got in trouble for it. We had a governor who was Jewish, and consorted with prostitutes. It didn’t hurt Jews,” he said.
“Go on the Citizen’s Union website and look at their list of all legislators indicted for felony crimes or removed for ethical violations since 2000,” he added. “You’ll be comforted by their diversity.”
Silver’s fall, he said, “It’s going to hurt Sheldon Silver. And it might hurt certain interests that he’s associated with. But its not going to hurt the Jewish community as a whole.”
Note: This story was updated on Jan. 28 to include the confirmation that Sheldon Silver would be replaced as speaker. We also removed Henry Street Settlement from the list of Jewish groups that received funding through Silver because the group isn't Jewish.