Born in New York on July 18, 1924, Rabbi Silver was the son of Rabbi Maxwell and Jennie Silver. During World War II, he served as a cryptographer in the Army Signal Corps, then returned to graduate from City College in 1947.
He was ordained as a rabbi in 1951 at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), proudly taking his place in the sixth generation of rabbis in his family.
He began his career in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, first as assistant to the Reform leader Rabbi Solomon Freehof at Rodef Shalom, then as rabbi of Temple Emanuel.
In 1968, after 13 years at Temple Emanuel, he came to Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, succeeding Rabbi Abraham J. Feldman. Serving as senior rabbi until his retirement in 1993, Silver set Beth Israel on a newly progressive path, including the adoption of an updated prayer book, the introduction of new rituals, and the hiring of the congregation’s first woman assistant rabbi.
“For over fifty years Rabbi Harold Silver has been an inspiring presence at Congregation Beth Israel. His 25-year tenure as its senior rabbi transformed the congregation with its progressive agenda and openness to change,” Rabbi Michael Pincus, the congregation’s current spiritual leader, told the Ledger.
“In the larger community Rabbi Silver was a force for reconciliation between Jew and Christian, between black and white and created our modern Greater Hartford Rabbinic Association (GHRA), and was instrumental in welcoming the Jewish community from the former Soviet Union to Beth Israel,” said Pincus. In Connecticut, he also served on the Governor’s Task Force Against Racism.
When a large wave of Russian Jewish immigrants came to the Hartford area in the 1980s, he led the way in welcoming them to Congregation Beth Israel; when fire damaged nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church, he opened Beth Israel’s doors to its neighbors.
A leader in the Reform movement, he was an officer of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. In recognition of this service, HUC granted him an honorary Doctor of Divinity in 1976.
Silver came from five generations of rabbis. His father, Maxwell Silver, was a rabbi in New York City; his uncle, Abba Hillel Silver, was a rabbi in Cleveland, Ohio; and his grandfather, Moses Silver, was a rabbi in Jerusalem.
He served on the National Executive Committee of the Zionist Organization of America and the Editorial Board of The American Zionist.
Throughout his career, Rabbi Silver championed interfaith causes, inclusivity, dialogue within Judaism and community outreach. In Pittsburgh, he received the B’nai B’rith Citizen and Civic Service Award for his extensive interfaith work, and helped found NEED, a scholarship program which has sent thousands of African-American students to college.
In his retirement, Rabbi Silver authored two books: I Will Not Let you Go Until You Bless Me: Memoir of a Reform Rabbi, and Converting to Reform Judaism. He also volunteered his time as a narrator of audiobooks for the blind and took up sculpting at the age of 80; he completed a new sculpture just last month.
As a rabbi emeritus, said Pincus, Silver “was a supportive and helpful teacher. His calm and reassuring presence inspired confidence and trust. He was an ohev Yisrael and an ohev chaim – a true lover of Israel and a lover of life and he will be deeply missed.”
Rabbi Silver is survived by his wife Ruth Lee, a journalist and award-winning collage artist; three children, Marc Silver and his wife Beverly of Bloomfield, Jenny Kaplan and her husband Lauren Kaplan of Leverett, Massachusetts, and Molly Silver of Brookline, Massachusetts; and five grandchildren, Rebecca Slitt, Micah Snyder, and Eli, Judah, and Ezra Burstein. He was predeceased by his sister Marion Namm, and his son, Michael.