Gilman, a Republican, served 15 terms in Congress representing the lower Hudson Valley, retiring in 2002 as the oldest sitting member of the House of Representatives when New York lost two congressional seats due to redistricting.
The son of Jewish immigrants from Germany, Gilman went with his father to Berlin in 1933 in an attempt to persuade an aunt to come to the United States, reported the Washington Post.
“From her living room windows I saw the storm troopers marching up the streets, painting signs on Jewish shops and houses and bullying people off the sidewalk,” Gilman said in a 1978 interview. “I was just a boy of 10 but my father made me take it all in.”
Despite his father’s pleas, Gilman’s aunt refused to leave her native Germany and her last communication with her family was in 1937.
Gilman took part in 35 bombing missions over Japan as a member of the Army Air Forces during World War II, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts.
A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and New York Law School, Gilman worked as an assistant attorney general in New York, going on to establish a private law practice in Middletown. In 1967 he took his career in a different direction, serving first in the New York State Assembly and then winning a congressional seat in 1972, dedicating himself to bettering the lives of his constituents.
As a member of the House Human Rights Caucus, Gilman was extremely involved in freeing political prisoners, oftentimes working behind the scenes with little fanfare.
He was heavily involved in an international prisoner exchange that freed Israeli pilot Miron Markus who was jailed in Mozambique after a 1978 plane crash and in freeing refusenik Natan Sharansky from a Soviet prison, teaming up with Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald, who died earlier this year, and Rabbi Edgar Gluck.
“He worked hard to get Jewish people out of jail and keep them out of jail,” Rabbi Gluck told VIN News.
As chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee for six years, the maximum allowable term, Gilman was able to further advocate for Jewish causes. He was one of several members in Congress responsible for the creation of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad which has preserved Jewish cemeteries across Europe and used his influence to help Jewish activists.
“He was able to do so many things that people didn’t think could be done,” recalled Rabbi Gluck, who noted that it was due to Gilman’s assistance that he was able to obtain funding to build a superhighway from Kiev to Uman, saving visitors to the holy site more than three hours of traveling under difficult conditions.
In one incident that took place during the Nixon presidency, the Skulener Rebbe told Rabbi Gluck about 100 Romanian citizens who had been imprisoned for monetary crimes.
“The reason they were in jail was because one sold a pair of shoes to someone and another sold a shirt,” recalled Rabbi Gluck. “In the communist countries back then if you committed a money crime that was it. You went to jail and everyone in your family lost their jobs. Nobody was able to bring home a penny to live on.”
Rabbi Gluck went to Congressman John Lindsay, who was close to President Nixon, and discussed the situation with him. A year later, the Skulener Rebbe called Rabbi Gluck with an update on the situation.
“They let them all out of jail, all 100 of them and they and their families were put on a boat to go to Israel,” said Rabbi Gluck. “Ben Gilman had been working on the matter for a whole year and he didn’t stop until they were all freed.”
In another instance the Skulener Rebbe called Rabbi Gluck about another 400 people who were being held unjustly in a Romanian prison.
“I spoke to Gilman who spoke to Al D’amato and they cancelled Romania’s Most Favoured Nation trade status, which subjected them to an extremely high tax rate,” said Rabbi Gluck. “Gilman was the head of that committee.”
The devastating financial impact of losing their MFN status caused Romania to relent, said Rabbi Gluck. Once the prisoners were released, Gilman restored Romania’s MFN status.
While Gilman officially represented the Hudson Valley area, including portions of Rockland, Orange, Westchester, Sullivan counties, his influence resonated far and wide.
“He was the world’s congressman and he took that title seriously,” reported Rabbi Gluck. “Whatever there was to be done, he did, especially for Jewish causes and for Israel. When any president or prime minister came to America, their first stop was at Gilman’s office.”
Gilman had extremely close relationships with many Chasidic rebbes.
He met with the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Joel Teitlebaum, after the formation of the Village of Kiryas Joel, receiving a blessing for longevity. Gilman often spoke with great reverence about the Satmar Rebbe and took pride in his efforts that allowed Kiryas Joel to grow.
“He would go to the old Skverer Rebbe, the Satmar Rebbe and the Lubavitcher Rebbe,” said Rabbi Gluck. “He didn’t just go when there was an election coming up. If there was a wedding, a dinner or another function, he would go. He didn’t go to get votes, he was mamash like a chosid and whatever he would suggest to the Rebbes they took very seriously.”
Gilman, the father of five and the grandfather of eleven, had been in poor health since undergoing hip surgery. He died at Castle Point Veteran’s Hospital in Wappingers Falls, New York. His death represents the end of an era, according to Rabbi Gluck.
“The word ‘no” just wasn’t in his vocabulary,” said Rabbi Gluck. “Wherever he went, whether it was in Albany or in Congress, wherever he was he did whatever he could to help the Jewish community.”
Gilman is survived by his wife, Georgia, his son Jonathan and his wife Monica, son Harrison and daughter Susan, Nicole Pappas and her husband Nicholas and Peter Tingus and his wife Jody.