Silver’s Orthodoxy: Fair Game Or Cheap Shot?
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Silver’s Orthodoxy: Fair Game Or Cheap Shot?

How the media is handling the powerful pol’s religion.

On the first day of Sheldon Silver’s arrest as the central player in a massive corruption scheme, the fact that he was an Orthodox Jew was hardly mentioned in the mainstream press. “Sheldon Silver, Assembly Speaker, Took Millions in Payoffs, U.S. Says,” The New York Times announced. Silver’s religious affiliation was not cited, even in the accompanying article that suggested he was a hypocrite, “A Self-Proclaimed Champion of Disclosure, Now Faces Corruption Charges.”

The Daily News and the New York Post mentioned that Silver was Orthodox, but made no big deal of it on the first day. It seemed to just be part of his resume. The only ones who highlighted his Orthodoxy were the Jewish and Israeli papers. “Sheldon Silver’s fall signals end of a (Jewish) era in New York politics,” Haaretz declared. “Silver’s Arrest a Second Strike for N.Y.’s Orthodox Power Brokers,” JTA proclaimed.

JTA’s reference was, of course, to Silver’s friend and protégé, William Rapfogel of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, an Orthodox Jew who wore a yarmulke when he was arrested in 2013. Rapfogel pleaded guilty to helping fleece more than $9 million from the charity he headed, and is now serving a sentence of 3 1/3 to 10 years in prison.

Silver went bareheaded to court. He carried his black fedora in his hand.

Silver, 70, proclaimed his innocence with a low-key statement, saying, “I’m confident that after a full hearing and a due process, I will be vindicated.” His lawyers called the charges against him “meritless.” He was released on a $200,000 bail. Prosecutors also seized $3.8 million of Silver’s assets, which were spread across six bank accounts.

Although Jewish readers often complain that the press unfairly highlights a Jew’s faith when arrested, most news organizations subscribe to a test of relevance. Race, religion and ethnicity should be mentioned only when it’s relevant to the story. Thus, if a suspect in a shooting is black or white, that’s not relevant. But if the suspect is at large and the public needs to be on alert, the suspect’s race is mentioned.

Likewise, if a white officer shoots a black suspect, race is relevant.

Is Silver’s Orthodoxy relevant?

The New York Times did not even suggest that Silver was Orthodox until two days after his arrest when it gave details of one of the alleged schemes that netted Silver millions of dollar in legal fees. Silver, according to the U.S. Attorney’s complaint, had an arrangement with a prominent cancer specialist, Dr. Robert N. Taub. Taub would refer patients to Silver’s law firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, and, in return, Silver would arrange for state grants for cancer research for the doctor and his clinic at Columbia University. The Times wrote:

“It is unclear when he [Dr. Taub] and Mr. Silver first met — an acquaintance introduced them, the complaint says. Both are Orthodox Jews and graduates of Yeshiva University, although Dr. Taub is eight years older than Mr. Silver.”

(That’s from the online edition. In the early edition that I picked up at a newsstand on Saturday night, the Times article said that “both grew up in Orthodox Jewish households.” I am not sure why the change was made, but it is a worthwhile distinction.)

Silver’s Orthodoxy was suddenly a relevant detail, the Times decided.

But Marc Stern, general counsel to the American Jewish Committee and a longtime lawyer for Jewish organizations, told me that too much has been made of Silver’s Orthodoxy. “He’s not particularly an Orthodox figurehead,” Stern said. Yes, he took care of his Orthodox constituents on the Lower East Side and he gave the Orthodox access to state government, but, on the issues, he did not tow the Orthodox line. Stern mentioned three issues dear to organizations like Agudath Israel: Tuition tax relief for day school parents, religious exemption on same sex marriage requirements and abortion. “On all those issues, he followed the Democratic liberal agenda,” Stern noted. “He was not the consigliore for the Orthodox Jewish community.”

The New York Post highlighted Silver’s Orthodoxy with an article about his first Shabbat back at Bialystoker Synagogue after his arrest. The Post noted that Silver attended the early 7 a.m. service where the rabbi, Mordecai Greenberg, asked Silver if a special Mi Sheberch prayer should be said on his behalf.

“No, no. Thank you,” Silver answered, waving his hand and shaking his head. “No.”

When he was asked again by the gabai, the sexton, he demurred. “No need. Not now.”

The Post did report that Silver was called to the Torah for the prestigious “shishi” aliyah and was given enthusiastic “yasher koachs!” by the men in the synagogue who afterward grasped his hands.

The Post also quoted this line from Rabbi Greenberg: “When people do have merit, God will certainly take them out of their troubles.”

The rabbi of the Bialystoker Synagogue, Zvi Romm, acknowledged in an email to The Jewish Week that Silver was in attendance that Saturday morning “as he does typically when he is in the Lower East Side for Shabbat.”

“He worshiped as he has on any other occasion, neither lionized nor demonized by the community,” he said.

But he added that the story of the Mi Sheberach “is entirely fictitious,” as is the quote attributed to the rabbi. “‘Rabbi Mordecai Greenberg’ is neither a rabbi nor a congregant at the synagogue,” Rabbi Romm wrote. An email to The Post reqesting a comment did not receive a response.

The AJC’s Stern also had his doubts about the truth of the Post story. And even if it were true, he thought the piece was a cheap shot. He noted that Joseph L. Bruno, a Roman Catholic conservative Republican state lawmaker, was also indicted on corruption charges (he was later exonerated). “I don’t remember the Post going to Bruno’s church after he was indicted,” Stern said. “I think the press has an Orthodox problem.”

editor@jewishweek.org

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