SANTA FE, N.M. — The man often known as Santa Fe’s “town rabbi,” Leonard A. Helman, 86, died early Thursday after a protracted battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Helman was a much beloved Santa Fe character, a longtime state attorney with a doctorate of Hebrew letters from Hebrew Union College, who saw Temple Beth Shalom through growth and a new synagogue, and then became the founding rabbi of Congregation Beit Tikva.
“Rabbi Helman was truly a friend of everyone in the community, much beloved by the Christian community and by his fellow clergy,” Beit Tikva’s Rabbi Martin Levy said. “Dozens and dozens of persons have said to me how he influenced their lives in times of need and sadness. He always offered a wonderful smile or a story and a joke to lift up their hearts. He was truly a Santa Fe treasure in the fullest sense of the word.
“I first met him the summer of 1999 and I came back to Santa Fe four or five times after that. He was always very kind and very gracious to me. Over the years he helped me and was extremely supportive and enthusiastic about the work I
was doing with the congregation,” Levy added.
Helman was a man of paradoxes: a devout, observant Jew who believed in ecumenism. He attended Christmas Eve Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi every Dec. 24 for 30 years and led those attending pianist John Gooch’s memorial services in a rousing chorus of “Amazing Grace” a few years ago.
Helman’s funeral, at his directive, will be at the Cathedral Basilica at 11 a.m. Monday. A good friend, former Cathedral rector Monsignor Jerome Martinez y Alire, will give the welcome and Rabbi Levy will conduct a traditional Reform Jewish ceremony.
It’s an unusual, but very Santa Fe and probably pragmatic decision, since only the Cathedral has room for all the people who will want to pay last respects to Helman. “He was a very ecumenical guy and very inclusive,” Beit Tikva’s executive director Gail Rappaport said. “It’s amazing and wonderful that the people at the Cathedral are helping us do this.”
Helman was a lifelong bachelor who counted the hundreds of young people for whom he had celebrated bar mitzvah and marriage as his “spiritual descendants.” He had a quick wit and incisive mind, which served him well at his favorite game – he was a master contract bridge player – but sometimes got him in trouble with legislators and other state employees when he told them uncomfortable truths.
For more than a quarter-century Helman was a serious and conscientious attorney and hearing examiner for the then-Public Service Commission by day, but he could be found performing a soft shoe dance with straw hat and cane at Vanessie’s on many an evening.
Helman was born Nov. 30, 1926, in Hartford, Conn., to Abraham and Anna Helman. He is survived by a younger sister, Lila. Abraham died at 48, when Leonard was 12. Not yet bar mitzvahed, the boy still went to temple to pray the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, for the ritual 11 months.
Despite a passion for science and the life of the mind, “I had some devotion to religion,” Helman acknowledged once. “When a rabbi got hold of me to study for the rabbinate, years later, I was susceptible.”
In 1948, Helman graduated Phi Beta Kappa from hometown Trinity College with a bachelor of science in chemistry. He served in the U.S. Army, primarily as a medical technician. While doing graduate work in physiology and teaching high school science in Charlottesville, Va., Helman met Rabbi Leo Lichtenberg, a renowned scholar who was then the Hillel Foundation rabbi at the University of Virginia. Lichtenberg convinced the young scientist that the rabbinate was his true calling.
“I thought it would be interesting and a challenge and I could help people,” Helman said, adding, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, “It was a leap of faith, believe me.”
In 1955, he earned a doctorate of Hebrew letters from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and was ordained a Reform rabbi. He also earned a law degree in 1970 from Duke University.
Finding it difficult to juggle a law career and the rabbinate on the East coast, Helman took a job in Santa Fe in 1974 to practice law fulltime and be the part-time rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom, although the self-admitted workaholic often put in a 40- or 50-hour week at each job.
There were approximately 60 families attending Temple Beth Shalom when he came to Santa Fe. By 1991, when he retired from both the PSC and Beth Shalom, the temple’s congregation had grown to 400 families, and a striking new synagogue had been built on the property.
After a brief respite in Pennsylvania and Alabama, Helman returned to town in 1995 and became the nucleus of a “traditional Reform” group, Congregation Beit Tikva. The new congregation held services at the Lutheran Church of the Servant on Rodeo Road for 10 years before building its synagogue on Old Pecos Trail.
In “retirement,” he volunteered at St. Vincent Hospital, and despite being a Reform rabbi always was willing make up the minyan (required 10-man quorum for prayer) for local Orthodox groups.
He believed in ecumenism, but he urged young Jewish people to attend their temple. “Besides your commitment to God, it’s the place for a commitment to your Jewish heritage,” he told them. “It’s a place where you spend time with people of similar background. The Jewish traditions are thousands of years old. This place (“Beit Tikva” means House of Hope) allows us to work together within that tradition.”
The Helman Bridge Center off Rodeo Road also is named for the rabbi, who won many international tournaments. Bridge World magazine called him “the world’s most celebrated bridge-playing rabbi.”