Debbie Greene remembers her first day at Shearith Israel Hebrew School in the fall of 1963. “I was very shy, and I didn’t know any of the kids. Rabbi Hillel Silverman took me around the synagogue, talked to me, and stayed with me until I felt comfortable enough to be in the classroom. I will always remember his kindness.” Sandy Kaufman remembers at his bar mitzvah that Rabbi Silverman predicted he would have one of two future careers — either as a cantor, which Sandy says was overly generous, or as a train conductor, because his loud voice carried. Scott Robbins remembers after family Friday night dinners coming to shul for Rabbi Silverman’s services. These are just a few of the dozens of recollections shared when Rabbi Hillel Silverman, who served as Shearith Israel’s rabbi from 1954 to 1964, returned for a reunion, via Zoom.
On Tuesday, July 14, nearly 200 people logged on to Zoom to watch Rabbi Silverman interviewed by his eldest grandchild, Rabbi Matt Rutta, formerly the rabbi/educator at Ann & Nate Levine Academy. During the wide-ranging discussion, Rabbi Silverman spoke about the synagogue’s relocation to North Dallas, where many families lived. Rabbi Silverman had to go to court to urge the approval for the new building at 9401 Douglas Ave., because the council members had seen “Milk Kitchen” and “Meat Kitchen” on the blueprints and wanted to know if there would be animal sacrifices. Although the neighbors did worry about increased traffic, Rabbi Silverman said they were very friendly, and he never felt any anti-Semitism. An especially welcoming neighbor was baseball-great Mickey Mantle.
During his time at Shearith, Rabbi Silverman moved the synagogue from what he termed Texas Orthodox to be more in line with the Conservative Movement, adding the triennial cycle to Torah reading, English and Torah study during services. Another Rabbi Silverman innovation was inviting all the young congregants up to the bimah, like Art Linkletter, a popular entertainer at the time, who was known for his “Kids Say the Darndest Things” interviews. Rabbi Silverman’s impromptu question-and-answer sessions are a favorite memory of Malyn Burttschell Becker, who would go up to the bimah with her two sisters. Greta Rafsky recalls Rabbi Silverman using the questions and answers to teach the students — and the adults — about the weekly Torah portion.
Possibly the most infamous day of Rabbi Silverman’s tenure at Shearith Israel was Friday, Nov. 22, 1963 — the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Rabbi Silverman was attending a lunch for President Kennedy, who was slated to arrive with his motorcade, when it was announced that President Kennedy had been shot. Rabbi Silverman went to Parkland Hospital, where he saw Jacqueline Kennedy and soon-to-be-President Lyndon Johnson. Rabbi Silverman recalls very specifically being thankful that President Kennedy’s killer wasn’t Jewish. That evening, after sorrowful Friday night services, a congregant came up to thank him for visiting his sister in the hospital. That congregant was Jack Ruby. Two days later, Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald. Rabbi Silverman regularly visited Ruby in jail and because of this, was interviewed multiple times by the Warren Commission. Another notable Shearith Israel congregant of the time was Abraham Zapruder, who famously recorded the home movie that captured President Kennedy’s untimely death. Rabbi Silverman recalls that Zapruder called to ask advice about selling his movie and Rabbi Silverman said it was important to share it for the sake of history.
In 1964, Rabbi Silverman and family moved to Los Angeles. Two years later they had their third child, a son, Jonathan Silverman, who went on to star on television and in movies including the popular “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” During the final question and answer session, Rabbi Silverman was asked which of his son’s movies was his favorite and he said, “Weekend at Bernie’s because I had a part in it as a waiter!” Jonathan along with his sisters, Gila Rutta and Dr. Sharon Pollock, also joined the Zoom call.
When the hour ended, many people wished they’d had a chance to share their stories including Candy Chazanow Weinberg, who in 1959 at 11 years old asked Rabbi Silverman why her older brother was allowed to lead Shabbat services in Junior Congregation, but she was not. Rabbi Silverman said she could lead if she learned the service. “True to his word,” Candy remembers, “I became the first ‘chazanit’ at Shearith Israel. This made a huge impact on me as I became a young woman confident enough to stand up for what I believed in. Years later I became friendly with Rabbi Nina Beiber Feinstein, the second female to be ordained as a Conservative rabbi. When I asked who had encouraged her, she said her childhood rabbi, Rabbi Hillel Silverman in Los Angeles!”
If you’d like to watch Rabbi Rutta interview Rabbi Silverman, go to is.gd/RabbiSilvermanatShearith.
Congregation Shearith Israel communications director