Biography of Abba Hillel Silver

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



Abba Hillel Silver (1893-1963)


 Few of us will have a biography written and published about us twenty-five years after our death. That, however, happened to Abba Hillel Silver when Rabbi Marc Raphael did so in 1988.

Silver was an unusual Jew because he not only contributed to the Reform movement but because he was also the most important American Zionist leader of his day. Now this would appear most expected. But in the 1940’s and even earlier that was by no means the case. Reform rabbis were almost unanimous in opposing the establishment of a Jewish state for fear of being labeled un-American. Silver shared no such fears.

Born in Lithuania of a long dynasty of rabbis, he came to New York with his family at the age of nine. In New York he joined a Hebrew speaking group and became its president at a young age. Few American Jews spoke Hebrew then and Reform Jews with a knowledge of Hebrew were almost unknown.

In 1915 Silver was ordained a Reform Rabbi at the Cincinnati Hebrew Union College. His first appointment as rabbi was in Wheeling, West Virginia, where he stayed only two years. Then he became rabbi at Tifereth Israel (Glory of Israel) Congregation in Cleveland, where he remained from the age of 24 until he died at the age of 70. His synagogue was popularly called “The Silver Temple”.

Silver served in the United States Army during World War I and was decorated by the French for his performance.

Thereafter he devoted himself to the cause of Zionism and the American Jewish community. He was co-founder of the United Jewish Appeal, president of the United Palestine Appeal, president of the Zionist Organization of America and president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He also served as president of the American section of the Jewish Agency and in that capacity addressed the United Nations in November of 1947 during the debate concerning the partition of the British Palestine Mandate into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Silver spoke to the assembly in Hebrew, which had never been heard in international meetings before. It was a tremendous and dramatic speech, reflecting his immense ability as an orator.

It should be noted that during the Second World War almost all so-called Jewish leaders refrained from pressuring the U.S. government on behalf of a Jewish state. Not so Silver. A Republican, he nevertheless visited President Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly and insisted that he be heard despite Roosevelt’s antagonism to all things Jewish. Silver knew about the Auschwitz camp and he also knew that Roosevelt would not let our Air Force bomb the rail line to Auschwitz because Roosevelt wanted the death of Jews. Silver knew that Roosevelt sent two Jew baiting envoys to British “Palestine” to report on the feasibility of a Jewish state, which the two envoys of course rejected. In view of the then and now anti-Jewish attitude of Democrats, Silver established the American Zionist Emergency Council, which launched a public opinion barrage upon the U.S. public despite the failure of the large Jewish organizations to do anything for the tortured Jews of Europe or the Zionist cause. This campaign was very successful and forced the Democrats to at least support Zionism halfheartedly.

Silver also wrote Messianic Speculations in Ancient Israel: World Crisis and Jewish Survival and Where Judaism Differs.

In Israel there is a village called Kfar Silver. Today, forty four years after his death, Silver  ranks with Stephen S. Wise, David Ben Gurion, Nahum Goldman and Chaim Weizmann as one of the fathers of Medinat Yisrael (The State of Israel).

Shortly after I came to the United States I drifted to Cleveland, Ohio, for no good reason. There I attended the sermons of Rabbi Silver on numerous occasions, as he always spoke on Sunday morning. He was more than six feet tall and had a booming voice. His oratory was unequaled and fiercely aggressive on behalf of his people. Contrary to the wimpy attitude of almost the entire Jewish leadership of his day, he was not afraid to confront our enemies, hold high the people of Israel and stand up for all of us. He was the Moses of his day, who led the Children of Israel to the Promised Land, from abject misery to freedom and self-respect. He was truly a Tzaddik among us. May his memory be a blessing.

Shalom u’vracha.


Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The Restoration of Israel (2006).

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