Richard Mordechai Silverberg, a volunteer firefighter with the Hillcrest Fire Department for almost 60 years, died yesterday at the age of 82 after battling pancreatic cancer. A veteran of the Air Force, Silverberg held many positions with the Hillcrest Fire Department but was most widely known for his work as a lay chaplain.
“He didn’t have any formal training but he excelled as a chaplain,” Gordon Wren, Rockland County’s emergency services coordinator, told VIN News. “He really cared about people. If one of our firefighters got hurt, either on the job or in their personal lives, he was right there behind the ambulance and in the hospital, making sure they got proper treatment.
While Silverberg was known to never miss a meeting, illness prevented him from attending the June and July gatherings. A group of approximately 40 firefighters went to visit Silverberg in the Joe Raso Hospice Residence after the July meeting and despite the gravity of his illness, Silverberg took the time to address each of his visitors personally.
“One of the younger guys became a fireman at 16 or 17 and because he didn’t have a car, Richie would often stop to pick him up on his way to a fire,” said Shlomo Pomeranz a first lieutenant with the Hillcrest Fire Department. “He just got into the FDNY and Richie pulled him over and said, ‘you are a good fireman and you are going to be a great firefighter.’ As always, he spoke from the heart and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.”
“He was on his deathbed that night and he was still asking each of us how we were and how our families were doing,” added Wren.
As a chaplain, Silverberg officiated at the funerals of many firefighters.
“He had a knack for it,” said Wren. “He was the one who would speak. It was just something that was in his blood.”
Silverberg, an honorary member of the West Nyack Fire Department, grew up right around the corner from the Hillcrest firehouse. While he did not live his life as an Orthodox Jew, he wore a Jewish star badge on his uniform, refusing to take it off even when confronted.
Just two weeks before his death, Silverberg broke down crying in the middle of a conversation with Pomeranz, asking if he had been a good Jew.
“I told him that Pirkei Avos tells us that the world runs on three things, Torah, avodah and gemilus chasadim,” said Pomeranz. “There is no doubt that he personified gemilus chasadim. He watched over every neshama, not just in the firehouse, but every place he went.”
Silverberg tasked Pomeranz with making sure that he had an Orthodox Jewish funeral.
“I asked him just how religious he wanted it to be and he said to me, ‘Shlomo, you will know what to do,” said Pomeranz.
The funeral for Silverberg was held on Thursday afternoon at Hellman’s Memorial Chapel in Spring Valley. After a brief final stop at the Hillcrest Fire Department, Silverberg was transported by antique fire engine to the Jewish cemetery off of Brick Church Road in Spring Valley, accompanied by several fire engines.
Silverberg was accorded full fire and military honors at his funeral and dozens of white gloved firefighters paid their final respects to Silverberg, saluting his American flag draped casket, standing at attention during Rabbi Mark Nenner’s service and taking turns shoveling dirt onto Silverberg’s grave.
Silverberg is survived by his wife Elaine and his daughter Lisa.