On June 10, 2013, Rabbi Leonard A. Helman was remembered at a beautiful service at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, according to his wishes. Over 1,000 people gathered in honor of his memory, with friends and family offering eulogies and remarks. Along with the highest respect and love, there was also humor specific to Rabbi Helman, leaving everyone with a smile. As the throng exited the cathedral, there were flashing lights from police cars, a hearse and a limosine waiting for the trip to the cemetery for the interment service. Most of the funeral attendees crossed the street for a reception at La Fonda hotel with food and music, and those who later returned from the cemetery to the reception were greeted by the rabbi’s friends.
The following are transcripts of the eulogies presented at Rabbi Helman’s memorial service:
Rabbi Martin W. Levy (excerpts)
The Talmud relates that when the famous teacher Rav settled in a new community, it was said Rav bika matza vegadar ba gader, “he found a dry city and proceeded to build a strong fence around it.” SantaFe was a much smaller community when Rabbi Helman arrived some forty years ago. He found here a dedicated group of Jewish souls who wished to maintain their Jewish identity and educate their children. Never one to refuse a challenge, he threw himself into his task with tenacity and tremendous willpower. Thus he succeeded in building a spiritual fence around his people. Blessed with brilliance and perspicacity, Rabbi Helman realized there would be no future without knowledge. He labored to build the foundations of an educational structure that would nurture all ages. Many in this sanctuary watched as he honored your children with B’nai Mitzvah and Confirmation services. And he welcomed Jews of all backgrounds into his congregation.
Love for his fellow human beings was no matter of lip service to our Rabbi. With his deep sense of compassion, Rabbi Helman personally visited thousands of folks in the hospital and fulfilled the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming the strangers, as well as supporting the hungry and the needy. The quality of mercy came naturally to him, as he understand the notion of mercy as it affected all children, from families of a multitude of backgrounds. His heart was big; his spirit reflected his Hebrew name, Aharon Leib, Aaron the “heart.” For Rabbi Helman always opened his heart to us.
In the book of Chronicles we read: “Our days on the earth are as a shadow.” The Midrash asks, what kind of shadow do we cast in our lifetime? There are many shadows we experience—the shadow of a bird in flight, whose shadow is fleeting and then quickly disappears. Such a shadow is beauty lost. There is the shadow of a wall—in the morning the wall casts a long shadow, but as the sun rises, the shadow diminishes, until noon, when the shadow disappears. There are lives like that; a sharp intensity affects us for a while, but the impact of that soul passes from us. The Midrash reminds us of the third shadow, the shadow of a tree. As the tree grows, the boughs spread and the leaves multiply, and the shadow it casts is a wide arc. At all times of the day, that shadow offers an arc of respite and renewal to all who live under it. Rabbi Helman’s life exemplified that magnificent tree, that tree of life. His humanity and soul reflected his own eitz chaim, a tree of life, that gave all of us sustenance. His branches of compassion, friendship, love and learning will shelter us for decades. We are grateful to the Almighty for having shared his soul with us.
May his name be blessed forever.
Dr. Elliot Rapoport
Greatness is almost always diminished by confining it to the spoken word.
There is no way to accurately or adequately characterize Rabbi Helman’s abiding concern for all people, or the impact that he had upon those fortunate enough to have known him.
Leonard Alfred Helman was born on November 30, 1926 in Hartford, Connecticut. When Rabbi Helman was twelve years old, just prior to his Bar Mitzvah, his father passed away and while his mother heroically provided for him and his sister, Rabbi Helman grew up in comparative poverty, an experience whose lessons he never forgot.
Blessed with a towering intellect, Rabbi Helman was an outstanding student. In 1948 he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Trinity College. In 1955 he graduated with honors from Hebrew Union College where he was ordained as a Rabbi. He earned a law degree from Duquesne University in 1970 and in 1980 was conferred an Honorary Doctor of Divinity from Hebrew Union College in New York City.
But academia was not the only place where Rabbi Helman excelled. Beginning after his ordination and spanning some 58 years, Rabbi Helman was a pulpit Rabbi caring for and blessing congregations in California, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Alabama, and beginning in 1974, in Santa Fe New Mexico. In every community he served, Rabbi Helman found ways to make things better. He was devoted to many diverse causes including Bio-Medical ethics, homelessness, cultural diversity, religious ecumenisms, and the plight of the Falashim Jews of Ethiopia, personally traveling to that country in 1984 in order to see to the delivery of desperately needed medical supplies and clothing and assisting with their emigration to Israel.
A man of extraordinary depth and complexity, Rabbi Helman was, quite literally, a world renowned Bridge player, holding the coveted title of Gold Life Master as well as being both the author, and subject of innumerable articles on Contract Bridge.
A man who actually sent Mel Brooks a mezuzah after meeting him at a wedding, Rabbi Helman had a legendary sense of humor, and I suspect that each of you here this morning has at least one good Rabbi Helman story. Here is one of my favorites, told to me by Amy Stein, the renown Santa Fe artist. Amy decided to attend Christmas Eve midnight mass at the Cathedral and was stunned to find Rabbi Helman in attendance. “What are you doing here” she asked. Rabbi Helman responded, “you know, you can never be too sure.”
While he had much to be proud of, Rabbi Helman particularly enjoyed his service as Chaplain to the New Mexico State Legislature where he saw to it that prayers were offered by clergy of all faiths and denominations. One of his most proud possessions was an embroidered State of New Mexico jacket presented to him by the State legislature commemorating his years of faithful Chaplaincy.
In 1974, Santa Fe and its Jewish community were blessed by Rabbi Helman’s decision to assume the pulpit of Temple Beth Shalom, which in 1974 consisted of perhaps 60 families and a small twenty two year old building on Barcelona Street. Under his leadership from 1974 until 1991 the congregation grew to almost 400 families and a beautiful new sanctuary, classrooms and offices were built on the Barcelona Street property. While serving the Jewish community as its Rabbi, Rabbi Helman was also serving the entire state by holding the position of Administrative Law Judge for the New Mexico Public Service Commission where he distinguished himself and earned a reputation for fairness and the highest of ethical standards.
In 1991 Rabbi Helman tried his hand at retirement, serving small congregations on a part- time basis in Pennsylvania and later in Alabama, but his love of Santa Fe never diminished with time and so in 1995 he ended his exile and returned to his beloved city to assume the pulpit of Congregation Beit Tikva. His contract was simple “Rabbi For Life” a contract we have been proud to honor. Under his leadership our congregation has grown from 20 families to over 150 families and Rabbi Helman’s name is inscribed on a bronze plaque on the wall of the lovely new synagogue on Old Pecos Trail, which we dedicated in 2005.
The Rabbi Different for the City Different could be found tap dancing to Doug Montgomery at Vannesie, singing Broadway show tunes with John Gooch at the Eldorado, dancing to the music at the La Fonda, walking his enormous Bouviers, Bear, then Sarah on the Plaza; or arguing with New Mexico State Supreme Court Justices over some decision or arcane point of law. He was a genuine original, unique and inclusive and with an extraordinary talent to make people feel good about being Jewish or in the alternative make them feel good about just being themselves. He was at the same time highly accomplished and yet insecure and humble. We shall not see his kind again.
I should like to conclude my comments by reading the inscription written on his Honorary Doctor of Divinity Diploma, it reads:
“Leonard Alfred Helman faithful Rabbi and Attorney whose devotion to Judaism sustains congregants in communities distant from the mainstream of Jewish life; who has applied his knowledge of the Law to the public weal; and who as a teacher of Theology, has helped others to understand the meaning of Judaism.”
Rob Dean, Editor, the Santa Fe New Mexican
When I learned Rabbi Helman was ill, I told a mutual friend now living in Texas, and he wrote back about Leonard’s singular influence on Santa Fe. Our friend said, “Anybody who doesn’t think that each one of us is unique clearly never met the rabbi.”
I was lucky to know, not just meet, the rabbi. And it was he, not I, who made sure one of our first meetings grew into that friendship.
I need to tell you it started rocky. One day he brought to my office a group of readers angry about a story and photos in my newspaper. I tried to deflect the attack, but, of course, I was no match for Rabbi Helman in a debate over Israel. I know Leonard was a teacher. I don’t know about this, but maybe our friend of many talents had been a feisty bantamweight back in the day in Hartford, too, because he beat me up pretty good that day. A few days later, he apparently figured he’d better help patch me up, too. He invited my wife and me to dinner.
He used the relaxed evening to show me he was not a one-dimensional rabbi. He wanted to see if in me there was something more than the cartoon of a newsman, stubborn and not too bright.
From there, our friendship blossomed. I heard his words comfort families at memorial services. He celebrated newlyweds at countless weddings. He donated money, served on boards and brought people together.
Prideful but self-effacing, witty, with a busy mind – that was the rabbi. But nobody ever called him shy. Once when a reporter asked him for an interview, he dead-panned, “Will I have to comb my hair and shave?”
Over the years, I took many early-morning phone calls from Rabbi Helman. Most of them were like this: “This is Rabbi Helman. Natalie Guillén took a lovely photograph. Please tell her.” Always, a crisp, run-on message as if he were outrunning voice-recognition software trying to tame him.
Another day, it might be: “This is Rabbi Helman, Ben Swan wrote a wonderful article, please tell him.”
Without fail, his calls ended with a note of appreciation for the individual. It has stuck with me how he never forgot to add “please tell her” or “please tell him.” He credited the creators, the doers.
In those same years, I also got a set of calls of another type. Again, usually first thing in the morning – but these calls of not-so-mysterious origin were anonymous. I don’t think he even gave me a hello, just a curt, “A champion bridge player will be here for a tournament Saturday. You ought to cover it.”
I knew him only for the last 21 years in Santa Fe. Had I known him in Virginia, would I have received word that “a renowned biochemist will give a lecture at the medical college, and you ought to cover it?”
During his days as legal counsel for the New Mexico Public Service Commission, might I have taken a call that said “a gifted litigator will present a rate case this week, and you’d be smart to have a reporter there?”
Maybe some editor somewhere did receive those calls. But I didn’t know him as a med-school prof or as an expert on utilities law. I knew him as his own press agent, so cock-sure when he advised, for example, “A famous dancing rabbi will be performing near the Plaza bandstand this week. You might want a photo.”
A few, plain-spoken words, and then he’d abruptly hang up the phone. Over the years, I turned those calls into a race of sorts. Could I blurt out the sign-off “I love you, Leonard” before I heard the click of the phone hanging up? He might have been the most effective press agent I’ve ever known. Trust me. I don’t say “I love you” to a lot of flacks.
That was Rabbi Helman. He formulated his thoughts carefully and wisely. He expressed those thoughts forcefully. He effortlessly laced everyday life with humor appropriate to the occasion. And his grace and generosity of spirit should be an example that elevates us all as human beings.
Not many years ago, Rabbi Helman asked a few friends from The New Mexican out to eat. He wanted nothing more than to say thank you. There’s that beautiful impulse in action again – appreciation. His guests included the woman who owns of the company and a few of the prominent bylines in the paper. But his guests also included the deliveryman and his wife, the crack-of-dawn man who did the hard work of carrying his newspaper to the rabbi’s doorstep every morning.
I feel certain that he cherished the common man and knew that god gave each of them, when their moment came, the stuff to do extraordinary things. Honor and respect for all. That was the Helman way.
At that same dinner where Leonard put the business executive alongside the delivery driver, I posed a question that gets to the heart of faith. “Rabbi,” I asked, “how can we be sure God exists?”
Before he could speak, I rushed to answer my own question: “Because,” I said, “it must be through God’s grace that Leonard Helman lives among us.” Rest in peace, Rabbi.
Retired Justice Patricio M. Serna
I am retired Justice Patricio Serna, and it is my honor to speak this morning. The request to speak was made personally by Rabbi Helman a couple of years ago.
Paul Chase, Rabbi Helman’s good friend and pretty much care giver called me almost two weeks ago to tell me that Rabbi Helman was very ill and hospitalized at Christus – St. Vincent’s Hospital. I rushed over to be with Rabbi Helman. Some years ago, Rabbi Helman told me that he wanted his funeral to be held at the St. Francis Cathedral Basilica. It did not surprise me because he was a strong interfaith champion. Today, here we are, all gathered at the St. Francis Cathedral Basilica for Rabbi Helman’s services as he embarks, (as Kay Enfield stated at the hospital) “on a never ending Bridge Cruise .”
You know, Frank Sinatra had nothing over our beloved Rabbi Helman with his song, “I Did It My Way.” Having his services here at this beautiful Cathedral Basilica, surely demonstrates it.
I first met Rabbi Helman 38 years ago. I would go to La Fonda to dance to Father Pretto’s Salsa music. Rabbi Helman was always there and Wow! could he dance! We became good friends and that friendship has endured and flourished these past 38 years.
Rabbi Helman read every Bar Bulletin which publishes all State Supreme Court opinions and he would invariably call me and the other Justices to praise our opinions but, when he disagreed with them, he let us know too. All of us on the Supreme Court loved having him come to the court for oral argument and we all respected him highly.
I understand that Rabbi Helman was a regular at Vanessie these past years where he loved to sing and even tap dance. He did this until his failing health prevented him from it. The soft and soothing piano music of Doug Montgomery, piano player at Venessie, kept Rabbi Helman, at peace at the hospital.
Rabbi Helman was responsible for The Leonard A. Helman Bridge Center here in Santa Fe where he played Bridge at least three times a week. Actually, Rabbi Helman played in Bridge Competitions all over the world.
But our beloved Rabbi was much more than music, singing, bridge and dancing. On Saturday, I received a telephone call from my friend, Federal Judge Christina Armijo, calling to offer condolences on Rabbi Helman’s passing. She met Rabbi Helman in the 1980’s in her hometown of Las Vegas, N.M. Rabbi Helman happened to be a very good friend of Mr. Milton Taichert. The Taicher family was one of the first Jewish families to settle in the town of Las Vegas, NM, where the first Synagogue, and largest Jewish Community West of the Mississippi was built. The oldest Jewish Cemetery, Monte Fiorie, still stands. Mr. Taichert was a very successful businessman/merchant. He was often ill and hospitalized. Judge Armijo’s Grandmother was many a time a patient at the hospital at the same time that Mr. Taichert was hospitalized. The Judge recalls that Rabbi Helman would visit Mr. Taichert on a regular basis, traveling all the way from Santa Fe. Judge Armijo was touched by the concern and compassion that the Rabbi showed Mr. Taichert. That caring and loving concern for others defines Rabbi Helman’s character.
I spent much time at the hospital with Rabbi Helman, and had closure in telling him how much he was loved and I thanked him for all the great work he did for Santa Fe, the benefits he bestowed to the city and its people. He nodded and smiled, so I know he heard every word I said. One particular visitor, Rafael Edgar, gave him a blessing from The Talmud, in Hebrew. He interpreted what he said, and it was so beautiful, that I requested his permission to share it with you this morning. “Rabbi Helman,” Blessed be you in your coming in – Blessed be you in your going out. May the Lord bless you and give you peace.” Also, this morning I will share with you a quote taken from a headstone in Ireland, that I used for my late brother’s eulogy, this past October.
Death leaves a heartache
No one can heal
Love leaves a memory
No one can steal
Let the memories of Rabbi Helman be happy ones that leave an afterglow of happy times. Although our lives will never be the same and we will greatly miss him, we have to let him go. However, we are forever grateful and truly glad he came our way, touching and enriching our lives with his wisdom, kindness, friendship, compassion and love. We let you go Rabbi Helman, with the Lord’s blessings, peace and love that ‘no one can steal.’ Your rich legacy will live on forever – and you did it your way.
Rabbi Richard Margolis, Melbourne, FL
Today is a bittersweet occasion for all of us who have gathered here today to bid farewell and honor the memory of R. Leonard Helman. The distinguished cadre of speakers, from R. Martin Levy, through the various public officials, congregants, family and friends who have shared their reflections of Leonard have all provided us with the opportunity to celebrate his unique life and all he has been and meant to us. Yet we are also aware of the reality that as Leonard has concluded his life among us and entered eternity, there will be no new stories, no new times to share and enjoy, no new insights to learn from this unique and gifted man.
I have traveled here today to fulfill a promise that Leonard elicited from me years ago, when he first began to consider this occasion and how he wanted to be remembered. While I am a Rabbi, and, in that sense my participation today could represent many hundreds of our colleagues who benefited from Leonard’s wisdom and inspiration, the origin and essential basis for our relationship was our mutual love of competitive bridge. So, what I will attempt to do in these remarks is to recall several episodes over the 20 years of our friendship that the public could never have known. And each of them reflects on Leonard’s character, values, personality and legacy.
While Leonard used his title of Rabbi in the world of competitive bridge, I do not, and therefore I knew of him long before he knew of me. After his retirement from his original congregation here in Santa Fe, Leonard first undertook an interim assignment in suburban Pittsburgh, about 200 miles from my home at that time, in greater Baltimore. When I learned of his proximity, I called him to introduce myself, and he was absolutely astonished to learn that there was another Rabbi who could play serious bridge. He suggested that we get together to play a tournament event, and we set a date in the following month for a Regional to be held at the Hunt Valley Resort, just north of Baltimore.
We cannot control everything, and one of my congregants died and I had to officiate at his funeral on the day of the bridge event. Through shameless collusion with the funeral directors, I was able to set the service for 9 A.M., which would give me sufficient time for the chapel service, interment at the cemetery and a visit back at the family’s home, while still enabling me to meet Leonard about an hour before the start of play. As I was visiting with the bereaved family just prior to the service, a tall, distinguished, well-dressed individual entered the family room and introduced himself as R. Leonard Helman of Santa Fe, a friend of R. Margolis, and he then proceeded to extend his condolences to the saddened family. I must admit that my first instinct told me that Leonard had come to this funeral to ascertain that I really was, in fact, a Rabbi, and to see how I handled the service. I now know that he simply came because he wanted to express his sympathies to a bereaved family.
We had originally planned to meet several hours before play, to enjoy a leisurely brunch, and to discuss and prepare our methods for the bridge event. Following the funeral, we had less than an hour to visit in the coffee shop, get acquainted and to prepare for the day’s play. Leonard removed several crumpled pages from his jacket pocket; these contained his bidding and defensive methods and he requested that we play them. I agreed and we set out to do battle together.
The afternoon session went well enough. We had the top score in our section and were lying about 6th or 7th overall in the field of over 200 pairs at the dinner break. We had a lovely visit over dinner and I knew that whatever the outcome of the bridge, I had made a winning decision to become acquainted with Leonard. The evening session was solid; nothing spectacular, but I knew we must be in contention going into the last round. We scored favorably on the first of 2 final deals, and, although I could not have known it at the time, as scores are only posted after the completion of play, we had actually taken the lead as we withdrew our cards for the final deal.
On that fateful deal, I inadvertently committed a mechanical error. It was past midnight after a long day, my hands were perspiring, and I detached two cards from my hand and played them simultaneously, which is an infraction. The opponent did not see what had happened, but I called the penalty on myself, the result of which was to allow an unmakable contract to score. The adverse swing dropped us all the way from first overall to fourth. I was devastated. I wanted to crawl under the table and die. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before, and I had just thrown away a Regional championship with a silly misplay. To his credit, Leonard comforted me, complimented my play throughout the day, and said that he couldn’t wait to play together again. How many of your bridge partners would have been so magnanimous?
In the summer of 1997, the national bridge tournament was held in Albuquerque, and Leonard and I entered the Life Master Pairs. This is a very strong event, 6 sessions in duration over 3 days, and a scant 16% of the field survive the steep cuts to play in the finals. We were among the finalists, and this time, in the last round, something favorable happened. Leonard put us into an aggressive 6 Diamond contract, which I managed to make by means of a very unusual play. It was Leonard, not I, who reported the deal for publication in the Daily Bulletin. He wanted his partner to receive the recognition for this ‘newspaper deal,’ and the result was indeed published.
In fact, it made the bridge columns of just about every major newspaper syndicate, and was awarded 3rd place in the Hand of the Year competition of the International Bridge Press Association. Leonard was more concerned for his partner’s recognition than he might have been for his own.
I was ready to retire from the tournament, but Leonard accepted an invitation from 2 young players, one from Australia and the other from New Zealand, to begin play the next day in the Spingold Teams, the major team event of the nationals. Aside from Leonard, the other three of us were so unknown that we were seeded 5th from the bottom of the entire field, meaning that we had to face the #5 seed in the opening day’s play. The short version is that we annihilated them!
Leonard and I had 5 big pick-ups at our table in the first half, and the whole room was buzzing with anticipation when it was learned that 2 Rabbis and 2 youngsters from abroad had Berkowitz –
Cohen, Wolfson – Silverman, Levin & Weichsel on the ropes at halftime. That opposing team contained 5 world champions. For the evening session, our table was surrounded by kibbitzers, perhaps 30 or 40, including world champions Zia and Tony Forrester. Although already over 70 years of age and in his 4th consecutive day of high-level competition, Leonard played magnificently that night, reveling in the crowd of kibbitzers, and we held on to win the match comfortably.
Two years later, we entered the Reisinger Teams at the Fall Nationals in Boston. This is widely considered to be the strongest team event in the world, and the finals are always comprised of a list of “Who’s Who” in the world of competitive bridge. Just as in the Life Master Pairs, there are steep cuts after each of the first two days of the 3-day event. Near the end of the second semifinal session, with qualification for the finals very much on the line, Leonard noticed that an opponent had mis-scored a result, in our team’s favor. Ethical as ever, Leonard asked that the play be reviewed, and the score was corrected, in the opponents’ favor. We eventually did qualify for the finals, but that one episode shows that Leonard was as scrupulously ethical as he was fiercely competitive.
Now I want to share a couple of memories I hold of Leonard as a Rabbi. In 1995, when I accepted the pulpit of the congregation in Melbourne, FL, near the Space Center, Leonard was gracious enough to travel for my installation ceremonies, which took place at Sabbath services on Friday evening. That same weekend, the neighboring Greek Orthodox church, with which we shared a common roadway, was holding their annual Greek festival, a very popular local cultural event. After speaking meaningfully and humorously at the service, Leonard grabbed the most attractive unattached young woman he could find in the congregation and took her next door to the Greek festival to dance.
That was not the only time I recall Leonard following Sabbath services with dancing. Prior to those Albuquerque nationals in 1997, Leonard hosted me and my late wife Linda for a lovely visit here in Santa Fe. We attended services at Beit Tikva, and what I remember best about those services was Leonard reading the Torah. Reminiscent of the custom in the ancient synagogues of 2,000 years ago, Leonard read the scripture verse-by-verse, pausing in between each verse to translate and explain the text. You have never heard anyone read Torah like R. Helman did that night! The stories he told and the explanations he gave were insightful, but also humorous and entertaining. And, of course, as soon as services and the reception were concluded, Leonard drove us over to Vanessi’s, where he removed from the trunk of his car a pair of dancing shoes and his top hat. As soon as we entered the night club, the entire assembly made way for Leonard to ascend the stage; he was immediately the life of the party.
The next morning, Saturday about 7 A.M., the telephone rang at the hotel where we were staying. It was Leonard, telling me to get dressed and ready to attend synagogue. “But Leonard, we went last night. We heard the Torah read. We recited the prayers and celebrated the Sabbath.” He informed me that he would pick me up in 45 minutes and we were attending a different synagogue. We had coffee at a local restaurant and by 9:00 we entered a small local Orthodox synagogue, meeting in a private home that had been renovated for that purpose. Leonard, the local Reform Rabbi, was concerned that the Orthodox congregation would need us to comprise a minyan, the requisite quorum of 10 adult Jews to enable public worship. One of the congregants, an academic, informed me that Leonard was one of the founders of that congregation, and an early and generous donor to the campaign that enabled them to acquire and refurbish that house. The Reform Rabbi, a quintessential liberal Jew, concerning himself with the establishment and development of an Orthodox congregation here in Santa Fe. Such a man was R. Leonard Helman.
One last observation from the world of bridge publication, something Leonard was too modest to tell you himself. As a result of a visit Leonard once paid to Australia, where he met and played bridge with Ron Klinger, international player and bridge writer, a heroic figure, “The Rabbi” began to appear in bridge literature. In fact, in collaboration with David Bird of England, the most prolific bridge author of our times, 3 “Rabbi” books have now appeared. The first two were entitled “Kosher Bridge” volumes 1 & 2, and the third is “The Rabbi’s Magic Trick.” R. Leonard Helman was the prototype and model for that character, and the original book was dedicated to him.
My friends, you know as do I that none of us lives forever in this world. There is a limit to our days, and what we all live and strive for is that somehow our lives will be filled with good family and friends, a good name and reputation, some worthy achievements, and some good memories that will live on after us. By each of those standards, the life of R. Leonard Helman was exceptionally well lived, and that is why he is now deeply missed by all of us who knew him and loved him.
May the soul of R. Leonard Helman be bound up in the bond of life everlasting. May he find eternal rest, in God’s sheltering presence, in peace. Amen.
I would like to try to answer the question that many of you are pondering this morning – what’s a nice Jewish boy doing in a place like this? Many years ago Rabbi Helman decided that his funeral should be held here at the Cathedral Basilica. Over the years many tried to talk him out of it. He would explain that this is the only place in town big enough to accommodate all the mourners. But that wasn’t the real reason.
Rabbi Helman enjoyed his reputation as the Rabbi Different for the City Different and he was never one to shy away from controversy. Like most great men he had a big ego, but at his core Leonard was a humble man, a holy man. He never would have selected the Cathedral for his funeral simply to make a splash. He didn’t have that kind of arrogance.
No, it wasn’t the size of the crowd or any desire to be controversial that drove Leonard to insist upon this venue for his funeral. I think it was his overwhelming desire to bring people together notwithstanding the differences of their beliefs. The term “Rabbi” means “teacher.” For Rabbi Helman, this funeral is his final teaching moment.
There is a history of conflict in the world in which differences in religious beliefs have been used as an excuse for violence and hatred. Jews, Christians, Sunnis, Shia, Hindus, Agnostics, Atheists, the list goes on. Leonard was proud to be a Jew and his Judaism was so important to him that he became a Rabbi. But he never allowed his own faith in God to become a religion of exclusion. He always emphasized the importance of reconciliation and love among all peoples as the only pathway to peace. During his tenure as Chaplain for the State Senate, Rabbi invited a wide range of religious leaders to participate in offering a prayer for our legislators. He invited Catholic priests, Christian ministers, and other Rabbis. Shortly after 9-11, he invited a Muslim Imam to give an opening prayer, and helped organize an interfaith gathering at this Cathedral to pray for peace and tolerance in the world.
The Yiddish word “mensch” means a person of integrity and honor. A mensch is a person to admire and emulate, a person of noble character. Leonard knew that one need not be Jewish to be a mensch. Rabbi Helman wanted his funeral here to serve as a reminder that labels we apply to ourselves – even labels that define our religious beliefs – are not as important as the manner in which we conduct our daily lives.
Rabbi Helman delivered many sermons throughout his life. One of his best he entitled: “Who Will Say Kaddish for Me?” Kaddish is the prayer typically recited by family members to honor the memory of a relative who has died. Rabbi explained: Kaddish is the ultimate blessing to the deceased. It is immortality. Saying Kaddish is giving eternal and everlasting life to the deceased. Rabbi never married and had no children of his own. He acknowledged his love for his three nephews and his niece, but noted that none of them is particularly religious. So he asked the question – who will say Kaddish for me? Who will give life everlasting to me? He said, Having friends who love me for what I am, a very imperfect human being with strengths and weaknesses – that will be the Kaddish for me. If my friends think of me after I am gone, that is a beautiful thing. I am very lucky. I have officiated at the weddings of many persons. They and their children will be my future. I now meet their children. I have officiated at Bar and Mat Mitzvot. By touching another person’s life, you are causing somebody to say Kaddish for you – not necessarily literally but at least spiritually. The real answer to the question: who will say Kaddish for me is the God who suffers our pain, the friends who bear our grief and our failures and our foibles and who recognize that we do things that we shouldn’t do and we are still accepted and loved.
Well, Rabbi, I think that you can tell from the size of the gathering here today that you have a great deal of family right here is Santa Fe, family that will long remember your warmth, your kindness, and your love for us and your love for life.
Mark Horton, by letter
In the spring of 1997 I received a phone call from Mario Dix, the President of the Malta Bridge Federation, asking me if I would be interested in playing in the Malta Festival with a visiting American, Leonard Helman. It was only later I discovered he was a Rabbi, but it seemed like a good idea and looking back on it I recall that when the event was over and he was leaving for the airport I borrowed a line from Casablanca, ‘ Rabbi, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship’.
Over the following decade and a bit we travelled the world playing in (and winning a few) of some of the toughest events in the bridge calendar, crossing swords with many of the world’s finest players.
A few years ago the Rabbi mentioned in one of our almost daily conversations that he would like me to come to his funeral. ‘Sure, Rabbi’ I replied. ‘Can you give me the date?’ Well, Leonard, sadly I can’t make it – a bridge event in Hong Kong is in the way.
I have just finished writing a book recounting our adventures at the bridge table, and it tells the story of a man who became hooked on bridge at an early age. I have lost a dear friend, but his memory will live on in many ways, not least when The Rabbi’s Rules is published in the fall.
I was lucky enough to visit the Rabbi in his home town of Sante Fe and discover what an inspiration he has been to the community and how many lives he has touched.
I would like to leave you with a few words from the man himself:
“I am a senior citizen and single. I have had Parkinson’s Disease for 8 years. And I must tell you that all the bridge players without exception have been helpful to me, as for example, taking out and putting back my cards in the tray. I have accumulated a little of earthly substances, but I cannot take my material gifts with me and I do believe in spiritual immortality. I have instructed my family to put a deck of cards in my coffin in case – who knows?”
God bless you Rabbi.
My name is Alan Abramson, Leonard’s nephew, and it is a great honor to be here with my brother Steven representing Leonard’s family.
My mother Lila, who is Leonard’s sister, is living in New York but unfortunately was not able to travel to be here today. She sends her deep appreciation to all those who are here and to those who have cared for and loved Leonard over the years.
Our family is deeply touched by the affection that so many of you have for Leonard and by your generosity.
I want to thank the church for making this space available for this event and acknowledge the church’s leaders for their friendship with Leonard over many years.
I also want to thank Leonard’s many friends, including many members of his congregation, who have cared for Leonard as his health declined in recent years and who visited and sat with him in the last difficult weeks and who made arrangements for this event and so much more.
I want to express our gratitude to Carol Clifford who helped Leonard with his legal matters.
And I also want to especially acknowledge Paul Grace who cared for Leonard in recent weeks, months, and years as if Leonard was a member of Paul’s own family. Thank you so much, Paul.
Finally, I want to thank the people of Santa Fe who have loved my uncle over the past 40 years and have come here today to celebrate his life.
Let’s face it. My uncle was different, and it takes a special community like Santa Fe to embrace difference and make a person like my Uncle Leonard feel so at home as he felt here for so much of his life.
Of course, Leonard, the rabbi different, also embraced difference in others. He listened to, respected, and loved just about all he met.
As someone noted in one of his obituaries, it was hard for Leonard to say an unkind word about anyone.
Of course, Leonard himself embraced many different interests: Jewish culture, coins, lawyering, bridge, the arts, opera, chess, crossword puzzles, one-off stocks, and many more.
Leonard also embraced the differences in my brother and me. We are both gay.
I first came out to my Uncle Leonard in the early 1980s.
Or actually, it was my partner Alex who came out to Leonard for both of us.
Alex and I were living in Washington, DC, and Alex was working for the Edison Electric Institute, which is the big national association of electric utilities.
Alex had a meeting to go to in Santa Fe, and I suggested he look up my Uncle Leonard who worked for the state public service commission, which oversaw the state’s electric companies. You know that’s the way Washington works.
So after Alex made it to Santa Fe, he called Leonard up and took him out to dinner.
Leonard chose the most expensive restaurant in town – way beyond Alex’s dinner allowance from the utility association since Alex was a very junior staff member at the time.
So, after dinner and a few drinks, I think Alex was looking to get his money’s worth out of this expensive dinner, and asked Leonard if he would marry him – Alex – and Leonard’s nephew Alan – me.
Well, this was the first time Leonard had heard that his nephew was gay. However, Leonard didn’t miss a beat. He said he was very glad the two of us had found each other, and promised he would consider the idea of marrying us.
A month or two later we got a nice warm letter from Leonard saying that he loved Alex and me deeply but that according to the rules of reform Judaism and state law at the time he just couldn’t marry us.
Well – fast forward about 20 years to the early 2000s.
Leonard was visiting Baltimore for some treatments at Johns Hopkins hospital for his Parkinsons. We drove up to Baltimore from Washington planning to take Leonard out for another one of those nice dinners he enjoyed so much. However, because Leonard was tired from a day of consultations and because it was hard for him to get around at the time, we ended up at an Olive Garden restaurant right near where he was staying with his friend Kay.
I’ll never forget when we were done with dinner and left the Olive Garden restaurant. Leonard called us over – me, Alex, and our son Ben, who was about 3 or 4 at the time.
Leonard put his hands over our heads as best he could and blessed our relationship and our family – marrying us as best as he could.
I love you Leonard. You were one of a kind, and all the rest of us one-of-a-kinds are better off for having had you in our lives.