Helen M. Dalsheimer: A Woman Ahead of Her Time
By Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber
Every Shabbat morning, she sat in the fifth row on the aisle on the cantor’s side of the sanctuary. Dressed impeccably, her beautiful hands adorned with rings, looking serene while waiting for the service to begin. Helen Dalsheimer was, in my mind, the matriarch of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. By the time, I sat with her on those Shabbat mornings, Helen had already done so many of the amazing things for which she is remembered. Little did I know that her move from the Sisterhood board to the Temple Board Room led the way for generations to come.
Born in 1900 to Sol and Minnie Miller, Helen grew up and was confirmed at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. After graduating from Goucher College she married Hugo Dalsheimer, a business executive and philanthropist.
My association with Reform Judaism goes back to my very earliest age. In fact, I was born into a Reform home and have known no other type of American Judaism than Reform….. I am interested in the Movement, because I find that it meets my needs. It makes no demands upon me that are impossible to follow. We find that our young people who are growing up in the States today want Reform Judaism, because it is liberal in its thinking; and it is a changing religion in one respect, in that it changes with the times and meets the needs of the day.
Based on her own description of her early connections to the Reform Movement, it is not surprising that Dalsheimer was actively involved in the life of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and its sisterhood. She was president of the sisterhood from 1936-1944. She understood the significant role that sisterhood played both in individual congregations and within the Movement and the greater community:
As far as the Sisterhood is concerned, the sisterhood in every congregation is really what we call “the right arm” of that congregation, because we are primarily organized to serve Reform Judaism, to serve our congregation, and to serve humanitarian causes. And when I say humanitarian causes, I mean that sisterhood members are asked to participate in other activities and organizations within communities. We do not isolate our members to just sisterhood work; we want them to feel part of a community and to make contributions to the community in which we live.” (Transcript, American Jewish Archives)
In addition, Mrs. Dalsheimer was an active learner. From Sisterhood Thursdays which included Bible study, book reviews and discussions of current issues and concerns, to interfaith dialogue, she ensured that continuing Jewish learning was part of the sisterhood’s agenda.
In 1953, Helen Dalsheimer became president of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods. It was during her tenure that the Youth, Education, and Sisterhood Fund (YES Fund) was established. Today, the YES Fund (now Youth, Education, and Special Projects) represents the collective financial efforts of member sisterhoods and donors to strengthen the institutions of the Reform Movement and ensure the future of Reform Judaism. Through the YES Fund, WRJ is able to provide financial assistance to rabbinical and cantorial students, youth, and Reform organizations in North America, Israel, and around the world. Today, sisterhoods throughout North America strive to receive the YES Fund Kavod (Honor) Award which is in memory of Helen Dalsheimer. The Kavod Award is given for exemplary support to the YES Fund for three consecutive WRJ assembly periods (6 years).
Dalsheimer became the president of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in 1956, becoming one of the first women to hold such a position. According to The Chronicle of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation: “Her four years’ incumbency was rich in accomplishments and achievement. Her rare sense of dedication, the stimulation of her personality and her administrative talents made impressive contributions to the welfare of the congregation. She had been elected an honorary member of the Board in 1945 and in 1962 she was bestowed the honor of election as Honorary President for life–the second such distinction in the 132 years of the congregation.” (Greenberg, Rose, The Chronicle of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation 1830-1975, page 68)
Helen Dalsheimer was much more than her biography and her actions tell us. She was a creative writer who wrote parodies and skits for young and old alike. She was elegant and poised, and could command the attention of a room. Helen Dalsheimer cared deeply about her family and her extended family, about Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and NFTS.
Growing up, I did not know that the woman I called Aunt Helen had broken down barriers for women within the Reform Movement and the greater Jewish community and was a model of leadership for women and men alike. I knew that she loved Shabbat and study. I knew that I never heard her raise her voice in anger. I knew that I wanted to follow her example of dedication and devotion to the Jewish community and the Reform Movement.
Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber is the coordinator of WRJ’s Centennial Ten Minutes of Torah. She teaches adults throughout the New York area and is currently Director of Jewish Life at URJ Eisner Camp.