The wife of the Rabbi Harold Silver z”l was a “modern woman” and a formidable force in her own right
By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD – Artist and writer Ruth Lee Silver, the widow of Rabbi Harold Silver, z”l, the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Is-rael in West Hartford for 25 years, died on June 12 after a short, non-COVID-related illness. She was 90.
Silver was a former reporter with the West Hartford News and contributor to the Hartford Courant and other newspapers, and produced memoirs and essays throughout her life.
Her collages, often featuring street scenes and the diversity of city life, appeared in art shows around Hartford and in her winter home in Sarasota, Florida.
Despite her age, Silver was still actively practicing her craft at the time of her passing. The last story she wrote, an article written for the McAuley Senior Living Community magazine, will be published this month.
She designed her last art piece last fall for the Mandell Jewish Community Center’s “Welcoming the Stranger” exhibit. The canvas, featuring her trademark collage work, expressed her dedication to social justice and inclusion.
“Like the paper collages that she artistically patched together, Ruth Lee Silver was an amazing and remarkable woman. In her words, ‘a real hoot,’” said Rabbi Michael Pincus, senior rabbi at Beth Israel. “Kind, strong, reliant, and beautiful, she never stopped caring and fighting for the underdog. Devoted to her husband, Rabbi Harold Silver and her family, she was also a modern woman known in the community as a writer, artist and social activist. She was witty and sharp till the end and she will be deeply missed.”
Born Aug. 24, 1929 in New York City, Ruth Lee was the daughter of Sally and Morris Cohen.
Her father’s family owned a cosmetic company and the family relocated several times due to her father’s job.
“She mentioned that she moved around a lot because of her father’s work so she would always be the new kid in the school,” said her daughter, Jenny. “I think her emphasis on connection with people and networking with people she learned to do very early because of all of the moving around,”
“I think those early experiences helped form her desire for inclusion and that formed her activism, particularly for people who were marginalized,” added her daughter Molly.
Silver graduated from Elmira College with an English degree, and in 1951 at the age of 22 she and Harold were married. For several years they lived in Pittsburgh where their three children were born.
In 1968, the Silvers moved to West Hartford where Harold became Beth Israel’s senior rabbi.
It was a more traditional time for rebbetzin – the wives of rabbis.
“Ruth Lee was amazing. In the days when she and Harold married, rebbetzin was a job – an unpaid job,” said Rabbi Stephen Fuchs, Rabbi Silver’s successor at Beth Israel and now its rabbi emeritus. “Back in the early ‘50s when Harold was ordained, the women just came along. Ruth Lee sort of broke that mold. She had her own career. She was a wonderful artist and she also had a career as a journalist. She was interested in what was going on at the synagogue and came to services, but she was just a very independent woman.”
“Work was always important to her and she went back to work later in life,” said Molly. “She was always tutoring kids in the Hartford public schools. Then she became an artist in her 50s, which was astonishing to all of us. But she also worked as a journalist and that was always very important to her. She balanced all of that with a lot of grace.”
Ruth Lee and Harold Silver were strong partners in life, their children say. The two never spent more than three days apart.
“She was always very inspiring to me because she definitely was supportive of my father and did all the things that she needed to do in her role as the wife of a rabbi of a very large congregation, but she was very much her own person,” Molly explained. “I remember as a child sitting at the dinner table with people like Elie Wiesel and Abram Sachar and other scholars who would be coming to speak at my father’s synagogue… Or my father would bring home a collection of people for a seder at the last minute, and while that would be unnerving for anybody, she was always sort of going with the flow…She could hold her own with elegance and grace.”
Both Ruth Lee and Rabbi Silver were active in the resettlement of Jews from the former Soviet Union who arrived in Hartford in the 1980s. She taught English to the newcomers made lasting connections with them, as well as with a variety of friends and colleagues.
“She had her artist group and her writing group. And she tutored lots of people,” Jenny said. “We have received notes from many of her friends from many walks of life [who said] she really had an impact on them.”
You can often determine a lot about a person from the charities listed in their obituaries. In Ruth Lee Silver’s obit the three organizations designated for memorial contributions were the Silver Courtyard Fund at Congregation Beth Israel; the American Civil Liberties Union; and CT Core Organize Now, a group dedicated to “building communities of racial justice freedom fighters to dismantle systemic and structural racism in the state of Connecticut.”
“She was quite outspoken – I mean, you don’t want to know what she would say about our president, yet she was always a lady,” Rabbi Fuchs stated.
“She was very political and swore by the New York Times,” Jenny said. “Actually, even in this last year, she had one of her groups write postcards to get people out to vote.”
Her 22-year-old grandson, Ezra described her as “more of a friend than a grandmother.”
“She was extremely honest and real. I was really into writing in early high school and everyone says don’t send your writing to your grandma because they will just love everything. But she gave me very real, honest feedback that was better than a lot of my friends. She was never fake. She was very accepting. I’m gay and once I talked to her about that and she said, ‘If marrying a man and not a woman makes you happy, I’m happy.’”
“She was always super stylish,” he added. “In an artsy, but elegant way.”
At home, Silver loved gardening. Her backyard was filled with plans and she shared her gardening expertise with her friends and family.
She remained active to the end, going to Tanglewood and TheatreWorks, watching the news and reading the New York Times every day.
“If I had to characterize her in one word it be that she was gracious – but honestly gracious, so that you knew when she told you something you were getting her genuine, unfiltered, if you will, perspective and it was always valuable,” said Rabbi Fuchs. “We had meals at their home, and vice versa over the years, and she was a delightful conversationalist. She was just a very bright woman. Harold and she had a wonderful marriage. He adored her and likewise, she adored him and they really were meant for one another. And I miss them both very much.”
Main Photo: Ruth Lee Silver stands next to the canvas she created for the Mandell JCC’s “Welcoming the Stranger” exhibit last fall.