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Mining for Gold in Albany

Binyamin Rose, Albany, NY

Yeruchim Silber’s career in political advocacy and community relations has brought millions of dollars in grants to nonprofits in the Jewish community

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

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FINE POINTS In his first four months as Agudah’s New York director of governmental relations, Yeruchim Silber has learned the two factors that make the difference between success and failure — building relationships and a keen understanding of the fine points of legislative process. “And obviously,” he adds, “you need passion to really believe in what you’re doing. We’re not here for ourselves. We’re here to help the tzibbur” (Photos: Amir Levy)

It’s tempting to plunk myself down and luxuriate in one of the plush green sofas in the lobby adjacent to the New York State Senate chamber. Especially after having flown in from Israel the night before and being leg weary from jet lag.

But when you’re shadowing Yeruchim Silber, as the clock winds down on the final week of the state legislative session, it doesn’t pay to get too comfortable.

Yeruchim is running on high octane — while I’m reaching for my next cup of coffee. He’s scouting the lobby and the legislature’s cavernous passageways and columned staircases for friendly or sympathetic lawmakers to advance Agudah’s interests. The primary pursuit is to uncover every avenue to increase funding to the state’s 400 yeshivos that provide a Torah education to 140,000 Jewish schoolchildren.

“A lot of the currency in this building is just picking up and trading information,” Yeruchim says.

As I try to slow down the pace to catch my breath, I ask Yeruchim to hold up while I approach a large and upbeat contingent of lobbyists from the Boy Scouts of America, dressed in their traditional olive-colored shirts and green canvas pants. Seeing the Boy Scouts reminds Yeruchim of his father, Rabbi Meilech Silber z”l, who was the principal of Brooklyn’s Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway in the post–World War II era. At that time, the concept of limudei kodesh on Sundays was just getting started. To make sure he didn’t lose any boys seeking fun and adventure, Rabbi Silber incorporated some wholesome, scout-like activities alongside the Sunday Torah studies.

Yeruchim is running on high octane — while I’m reaching for my next cup of coffee. The primary pursuit is to uncover every avenue to increase funding to the state’s 400 yeshivos that provide a Torah education to 140,000 Jewish schoolchildren

But there’s little time for nostalgia. The feel of the lobby at 9:30 on a Wednesday morning is like a cocktail party, minus the drinks. Well-dressed and coiffed lobbyists mill around the corridors, briefcases and files in hand, engaged in rapid-fire conversation. Everyone is looking to buttonhole legislators who step outside to take a breather from the endless drone of floor speeches and debates. The competition is fierce. Yeruchim is on full alert to catch up with his short list.

In his first four months as Agudah’s New York director of governmental relations, Yeruchim Silber has learned the two factors that make the difference between success and failure — building relationships and a keen understanding of the fine points of legislative process. “And obviously,” he adds, “you need passion to really believe in what you’re doing. We’re not here for ourselves. We’re here to help the tzibbur.”

Like Father, Like Son

New York presents its own unique set of challenges in navigating relationships. While Republicans control both chambers of the legislature in 32 states, New York is not one of them. In Albany, Republicans maintain nominal control over the state senate thanks to a group of independent Democrats who caucus with Republicans. Democrats have a stranglehold over the state assembly, controlling 103 of its 150 seats.

Maintaining shalom in the face of political differences is a value Yeruchim learned at home as a young boy.

“My earliest political memory was in 1960. My mother voted for Kennedy and my father voted for Nixon,” Yeruchim said. Aside from that, he doesn’t recall politics being a dinner-table topic. As a youngster, he also saw the good that politicians can do when they join hands.

In 1968, nearly a dozen Jewish institutions in New York City were targeted during racial and anti-Semitic disturbances. Arsonists gutted the beis medrash in his father’s newly dedicated Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway building. Seven sifrei Torah were burned, including one that Yeruchim’s grandfather had sent to a Polish village for safekeeping when the Nazis took power and that was recovered when the family left Germany in 1937.

“It was terrible tragedy,” Yeruchim recalls, “but at that time some of the local political leaders became involved in helping the yeshivah raise funds to rebuild. They became friendly with my father, so that’s really when I caught the political bug.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 669)

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