A Joelful Noise
Updated: Dec 27, 2020
His laughter could fill a room. His snark was legend. His heart, generosity, and charm will leave an un-fillable void in the progressive movement. Joel Silberman was one of a kind and his death touched many. Joel was a mentor to me, and a big reason that I am in DC working in politics today.
Joel had many lives spanning music, theater, and politics. He was a musician, opera singer, actor, and entertainer. He was a protege to Leonard Bernstein. He conducted and produced concerts and events on Broadway, in Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, and around the globe. He met Norman Lear and began producing events for People for the American Way, which thrust him into the world of progressive politics. His training of actors, musicians, and performers formed the basis for the next phase of his career as a media trainer to some of the most famous names in Washington, with the progressive political consulting firm Democracy Partners, which is where I came to know him.
In early 2012, I traveled around the country as a self-taught media producer in the Occupy movement, and serendipitously met one of the co-founders of Democracy Partners, Bob Creamer, who became a big mentor to me. Bob sang Joel's praises and set us up to do a media training together. Joel quickly became one of my biggest cheerleaders, and convinced another Democracy Partner, Mike Lux, that I was a rising star in progressive media and worthy of their help. I couldn't believe it -- I had three amazing mentors helping me navigate Washington! Mike eventually ended up hiring me to work at his non-profit, American Family Voices (AFV), in October of 2013, and I became a partner in Democracy Partners last fall.
Joel knew that he was gay from an early age, but married two different women. In his media trainings, he advised politicians to be their most authentic selves, and this eventually spurred him to come out of the closet. Once he was out, he was a vocal gay rights activist. He joked in conference presentations about his hair being bigger the deeper in the closet he was. He had a funny anecdote about his coming out to his friend, the famous Broadway singer and actress Bea Arthur. She looked right at him and said, "Joel, were you the last to know?" Ultimately, he met the man of his dreams, Michael, and they married in July of 2013, after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality. These were joyous times, and Joel's happiness was infectious. I could always count on him to pop into the office and lift everyone's mood.
But Joel was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in late spring of 2017. He fought the disease valiantly and with good humor, becoming a part of the small percentage of pancreatic cancer patients to survive past the one-year anniversary of diagnosis. Throughout his battle with cancer, he continued working. He became a board member to AFV, and gave a rousing speech at our annual fundraiser encouraging folks to support our work. It was one of the last times I would see him, and one of my dearest memories.
Joel died the opening day of this August's Netroots Nation, the annual confab for the progressive movement where he always played a starring role, both as a speaker and a producer of the event. The timing of his death that day felt fitting, as many of those who knew and loved him best were gathered in one place to mourn and celebrate his memory together.
Michael held a formal memorial for Joel this past Saturday in New York, and it was perfectly Joel: a matinee at a cabaret lounge featuring performances from his Broadway friends to raise money for a scholarship endowed in Joel's name at Juilliard, where he had been a frequent guest lecturer.
Rest in peace, Joel. You were a real mensch, and I miss you greatly.