Silver, Abba (Abraham) Hillel

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SILVER, ABBA (Abraham) HILLEL (1893–1963), U.S. Reform rabbi, Zionist leader. Silver was born in Lithuania and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1902. While studying at Yeshivat Etz Chaim (later, the Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan Theological Seminary; see *Yeshiva University), he founded the Dr. Herzl Zion Club, a Hebrew-speaking group which evolved into *Young Judaea, the first Zionist youth organization in the U.S. He received a B.A. from the University of Cincinnati in 1915 and was ordained the same year at *Hebrew Union College, where he earned a D.D. in 1925. He was awarded an honorary L.D. by (Case) Western Reserve University, an honorary D.H.L. by Hebrew Union College, and an honorary D.H. by the University of Tampa.

Following ordination, Silver became rabbi of Congregation Leshem Shomayim in Wheeling, West Virginia (1915–17). In 1917, at the age of 24, and in spite of his outspoken Zionism, he became rabbi of The Temple (Congregation Tifereth Israel) in Cleveland, Ohio, arguably the largest Reform congregation in the country. Committed to the maintenance of basic Jewish tradition, he installed a *Sefer Torah in the sanctuary's empty ark and moved the temple's weekly Sabbath worship service from Sunday to Saturday. He was instrumental in laying the groundwork for replacing the Reform movement's Pittsburgh platform with the 1937 Columbus platform. Infused with the spirit of the prophets of Israel, he denounced segregation and supported the right of labor to organize. He resigned from the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce over its anti-union policies and was a member of the special state labor commission that drafted Ohio's first unemployment insurance law. A self-appointed defender of the Jewish people, Silver was the founder (with Samuel Untermayer, and over the objections of some Jewish leaders) of the Non-sectarian Anti-Nazi League to Champion Human Rights, which organized a boycott of German goods in the 1930s.

Active in more than 30 local and national organizations, Silver was the founding president of the Cleveland Bureau of Jewish Education (1924–32); president of the Cleveland Jewish Federation (1935–41); national chairman of the board of governors of the State of Israel Bonds; national chairman of the United Palestine Appeal (1938), and national co-chairman of the United Jewish Appeal; president of the *Central Conference of American Rabbis (1945–47); member of the board of governors of *Hebrew University; president of the alumni association of Hebrew Union College (1936–37), and chairman of its board of alumni overseers (1952); and president (1957–58) and honorary chairman (1945–46) of the *Zionist Organization of America.

A brilliant orator, Silver had the greatest impact and made his most important contributions as a founding chairman of the American Zionist Emergency Council (1943–45), and later as chairman of the American section of the Jewish Agency (1946–49). With the outbreak of World War ii, he saw the opportunity to achieve the goal of a Jewish state. Perceiving that the postwar influence of the United States would be decisive, and winning the support of its people and government crucial, he (together with Stephen S. *Wise, although the two frequently clashed) succeeded beyond expectations in mobilizing public opinion, both Jewish and non-Jewish, on behalf of the Zionist cause. His public and private eloquence resulted in the passage of Congressional resolutions favoring the establishment of a Jewish Commonwealth, as well as in commitments of support enunciated in the Republican and Democratic Party platforms. The high point of his Zionist leadership came on May 8, 1947, when he presented the case for an independent Jewish state before the General Assembly of the United Nations, which passed the Partition Resolution on November 29 of that year, establishing the legal basis for the creation of the state of Israel. He returned again to the United Nations in May 1948 to announce that Israel had declared itself an independent state. It has been speculated that, had Chaim Weizmann not become the first president of Israel, Silver – widely considered one of the architects of modern Israel – might have been selected for that position. In 1950, a poll conducted by the National Jewish Post named him the leading figure of American Jewry. In 1952, he gave the benediction at the inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Although internal rivalries led Silver to leave his official posts in Zionist organizations, he constantly responded to appeals for his service in fundraising or for the use of his enormous prestige on behalf of Israel. Back in Ohio, he opposed a 1958 "right-to-work" amendment to the state's constitution. He was the recipient of many awards, including the Medal of Merit from the Jewish War Veterans (1951), the National Human Relations Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and the Louis Brandeis Award of the American Zionist Council. The village Kefar Silver in Israel was named after him.

Silver's major books are A History of Messianic Speculation in Israel (1927), The Democratic Impulse in Jewish History (1928), Religion in a Changing World (1931), Vision and Victory (1949), Where Judaism Differed (1956), Moses and the Original Torah (1961), and Therefore Choose Life (1967), a selection of his sermons, addresses and writings (edited by H. Weiner). Silver died in his 45th year as rabbi of The Temple and was succeeded by his son, Daniel Jeremy *Silver.


R.W. Zweig, J.D. Sarna, and M.A. Rader, Abba Hillel Silver and American Zionism (1977); M.L. Raphael, Abba Hillel Silver: A Profile in American Judaism (1989).

[Bezalel Gordon (2nd ed.)]