Senior Lifestyle

Tucson relatives trace passion for philanthropy to 101-year-old matriarch

Lillian Silverman at her 100th birthday party with her grandson from Tucson, Jeff Jacobson, and his wife, Rachel, and son, Sam, in 2010. (Courtesy Alan Jacobson)

On July 4, 2011, the Brooklyn borough president proclaimed the day “Lillian Silverman, 101st Birthday Celebration Day.” The Arizona Jewish Post learned of this energetic senior’s special recognition through her family, many of whom reside in Tucson. From children through great-grandchildren, three generations have inherited Lillian Rudnick Silverman’s generous spirit. Silverman’s grandson, Jeff Jacobson, says that his grandmother instilled the understanding in her children and grandchildren that “life is more than just about themselves.” She has inspired her family, says Jacobson, to do what they can to give back to their community and work to make positive changes in the world, even when faced with adversity.

Silverman has two children, Florence Jacobson, 77, and Leonard Rudnick, 71. Rudnick began working at age 15 helping mentally handicapped children. He went on to a career working with youth with learning disabilities, eventually running a program at New York Medical College. Tucson Unified School District brought Rudnick to Tucson in the 1970s to work with learning disabled students, but that job somehow evaporated when he arrived. The setback motivated Rudnick to return to school himself, and he became a chiropractor in 1975. For years Rudnick worked pro bono for the Arizona Ice Cats as their team chiropractor. He currently volunteers with the Pima County Sheriff’s department while still maintaining a chiropractic practice that includes travel and lecturing on his groundbreaking use of low-intensity lasers for treating pain and healing wounds.

Florence Jacobson, who retired to Tucson in 2001, remembers that her parents had been heavily involved in B’nai B’rith for many years, virtually running their local lodge in Brooklyn. She vividly recalls how in 1950, when she was 14 years old, her mother sat her down and told her not to be alarmed, but there was a possibility that her father would be arrested. When the teenager asked why, Silverman explained that her first husband, Abraham Rudnick, had been involved in gun running for the nascent State of Israel. Though there was, in fact, no arrest, a worse tragedy struck when Rudnick died at age 42, forcing his wife to find work in order to support her two children. Jacobson says her mother rose above that adversity, marshalling her energies to work a full-time job, check in daily with her elderly mother who lived nearby, as well as care for her two children. “We didn’t know how poor we were,” Jacobson recalls, “and family responsibilities made it difficult for Mom to volunteer much after Dad died.”

Like her brother’s, Jacobson’s career path led her to work with special needs students. She retired to Tucson after teaching at the junior high level, a job she says “was rough, though I never enjoyed anything as much as working with those kids.” Jacobson’s “giving back” extended to volunteer work at her children’s schools, serving as PTA president and on the education committee of her synagogue. She lauds her mother’s example of living strong and staying physically fit and mentally engaged. The 101-year-old Silverman, she says, continues to walk at least an hour daily in her Borough Park neighborhood and stays engaged in the world. “She’s a real pistol, a gutsy lady who can name all the justices on the Supreme Court today and still relishes reading the science section of the Sunday Times.”

Jeff Jacobson, 41, Silverman’s grandson, is an attorney in Tucson. He says that his grandmother and those in her Brooklyn community demonstrate a belief in the importance of neighbors helping each other. His grandmother’s formula for living — loving people unconditionally, separating the problem from the person and helping others when you can — inspired him to serve in the Jewish, as well as the greater community, he says. Jacobson currently sits on the board of the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona and has served on the boards of Congregation Or Chadash and the JCF’s Project Dor Habah, which encourages participation in Jewish community activities by people in their 30s and 40s. He has also established the Wills for Heroes Foundation, which offers free wills and powers of attorney to first responders in the Tucson area.

Wayne Rudnick, 44, another of Silverman’s five grandchildren, is also committed to giving back to the community. A Tucson chiropractor, he assumed his father’s position as the University of Arizona’s Ice Cats team doctor. As a child, he recalls, he spent hours walking the neighborhood in Brooklyn with his grandmother. “Everyone knew her,” he says, “and she seemed to be part of an internal neighborhood social-support system. I remember how Grandma would cook all this food and deliver it to neighbors in need.”

At Lillian Silverman’s 100th birthday celebration in Brooklyn in 2010, Rudnick saw how good deeds may come full circle: “There are New Yorkers in Grandma’s neighborhood who remember her taking care of their grandparents and now they are stepping up to check in and do things to help care for her.”

Such neighborhoods, with long-established families whose generations stay in place, are rare in American life today. But a desire to give of oneself to help others in the community is luckily a tradition that many families carry on. Witness the example of Payton Rudnick, one of Silverman’s 11 great-grandchildren: In August 2010, for his Bar Mitzvah project, Payton started collecting soccer equipment and clothing for a nonprofit organization, the Peace Passers. “I am really passionate about soccer, so that was something that I felt good about working in,” Payton says. “I looked for something where kids could give back something that has value for them, not just by asking for adults to give checks.” Payton, who celebrated becoming a Bar Mitzvah on May 28, 2011 at Congregation Or Chadash, continues to work with Peace Passers, which sends soccer equipment to children in Africa, Central and South America and the Caribbean. He has surpassed his collection goals, stated on his website,

The centenarian, in a lively phone conversation this week, told the AJP the recipe for her contented longevity. “Share and give of yourself. What’s important is not so much what you give, but that you give with love.” When asked if she had been out for her daily walk yet, she exclaimed, “Oh my yes. I must walk and if I don’t, that’s like one part of my medication that I didn’t take. It’s a gift to be healthy and walking has done more than just keep me well. All my life I’ve  walked in my neighborhood and I’ve come to know all the children and mothers that I see on the street and they all know me. The children sometimes ask their mothers if they can go home with Lily and of course they don’t, as we only know each other from passing on the street. But it’s still nice to connect to those around you.”

We wished Silverman continued good health and her gracious reply was, “Thank you for calling, I’ve enjoyed talking with you. Good health to you and get out and walk!”