It is early fall 2013. Almost 50 years have passed since the killings of John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald. Most of the rest of the Dallas power players of that era are long dead, unable to bear further witness to the truth; the legacy that survives them is one of skepticism and intrigue. The Warren Commission, the House Select Committee on Assassinations, the Assassinations Record Review Board, Oliver Stone’s movie, J.F.K., all produced various theories about what really happened. Was Jack Ruby — Lee Harvey Oswald’s killer — a helpmate to the mob? Was he enlisted by them or others, perhaps the CIA or Naval Intelligence, to kill Oswald and erase forever the truth about who really killed President Kennedy?
The Warren Commission, appointed by Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, and chaired by U.S. Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren, said Oswald alone killed the president and that Ruby was also a deranged single actor. Polls show a minority of Americans believe them.
Remaining faithful to the Warren Report is one of the last men still alive who knew Jack Ruby personally, knew him both before and after he killed Oswald, visited him in his Dallas jail cell for months, and testified at his trial. His name is Hillel Silverman. He was Jack Ruby’s rabbi. Today he lives in San Diego.
Rabbi Silverman, the Kennedy assassination's last insider
An interview with Hillel Silverman, Jack Ruby's rabbi and friend. Topics include his love for baseball, his time as a soldier in the 1948 Arab--Israeli War and rabbi in the US Navy, his thoughts on the JFK assassination, and his experiences with Jack Ruby before and after the killings of JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald.
Three miles up the road and over the hill from where mid-century Dallas oil tycoon Clint Murchison’s Del Charro hotel used to be before it was torn down for condos in the 1970s (see sidebar), Silverman gingerly puts down his cane and eases into a chair for yet one more take on the truth. He is 89 years old, but his memory of November 1963 is still firm, if sometimes, as might be expected at his age and after so long a time, wavering on some of the details. If anyone can speak with authority about those tragic days in Dallas, he can, though the mystery remains formidable, he admits, even for himself.
The bright sunlight of early fall streams through the windows of the upscale apartment complex near University Town Centre, where he has lived with his second wife in retirement for 12 years. After a career in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Greenwich, Connecticut, he moved to University City in 2001, becoming interim rabbi at La Jolla’s Temple Beth El. He still serves at B’nai Shalom, a small, conservative congregation in Vista.
Silverman says he is still convinced, after the many years of dispute, that the Warren Commission was right, that Ruby acted alone and there was no conspiracy with the mob, the CIA, or anyone else to silence Lee Harvey Oswald. Then he admits that there is still an argument.
“I think it was a bona fide commission,” he says. “I think they did a beautiful job of research, but they’ll never put it to bed; there will be people who are saying it’s a conspiracy a hundred years from now.”
Silverman, the son of a renowned Jewish scholar, went to Yale to play baseball, and then to the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. In the middle of his seminary training, Silverman went to Palestine to study the Talmud. When war broke out in 1947, he joined the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary group, seeing deadly combat against Arab enemies. A legendary force for Zionism, the Haganah carried out anti-British operations in Palestine, liberated interned immigrants, and sabotaged British bases and radar installations. Silverman still carries the emotional scars, as well as the fierce pride of having been present at the explosive birth of Israel.
“I went to study at the Hebrew University and I wanted to be a farmer,” he recalls. “I wanted to work on a kibbutz, one of those agricultural collectives, but then the war broke out and the Hebrew University closed. And I was not a hero — I did what anybody would do: I joined.”
At the end of the fighting, he returned to New York to complete his seminary degree and become a rabbi. But Silverman’s military career was not over. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, he joined the Navy and ministered to sailors and Marines. As the sole Jewish chaplain of the Sixth Fleet, he stood on the deck of the carrier Coral Sea and watched fighter jets launch on perilous, top-secret missions. He traveled in Europe, going to Germany, where he says he came face-to-face with fresh images of the Holocaust.
Silverman says he loved the Navy; he would remain an officer in the Reserves for another 30 years, seeing active duty again in Hawaii during the early days of the Vietnam War before retiring as a commander in 1974.
In 1954, deciding it was time for a change, he left full-time duty and for the first time sought a civilian pulpit.
A friend and mentor from the great Warburg family of Wall Street whom he had worked for at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York put him in touch with a Dallas lawyer for Del Charro’s Clint Murchison, who arranged an interview with Shearith Israel, a prosperous conservative congregation that wanted to build a new synagogue in the burgeoning suburbs of North Dallas. He got the job. That’s where he would find himself face-to-face with Jack Ruby.
Silverman was born to Morris and Althea Silverman. Of his father, Silverman says: “He was in Hartford, Connecticut, for 50 years, and he was the editor of a prayer book, a holy day prayer book that’s used all over the world. It’s a little out of fashion now but still is used, so he’s very well known.”
Though his father was a scholar, Silverman says he was still surprised when he got admitted to Yale. “It was a miracle. I couldn’t get in today, I guarantee. I don’t know how I got in, I really don’t. My marks weren’t that great, though my senior year I did well and I did some summer work. I wanted to build myself up for football, so I was on a construction gang with a pick and a shovel.