By Uriel Heilman
(JTA) – Sociologist William Helmreich, 74, an academic with eclectic interests whose areas of expertise ranged from race relations to urban life to Orthodox Jewry, died of coronavirus on Saturday, March 28.
A longtime professor at City College of the City University of New York, Helmreich penned more than a dozen books, ranging from the seminal 1982 book The World of the Yeshiva: An Intimate Portrait of Orthodox Jewry to What Was I Thinking: The Dumb Things We Do and How to Avoid Them.
“Helmreich is extraordinarily energetic and voluble,” The New Yorker wrote in a 2013 piece by Joshua Rothman about Helmreich’s chronicle of his urban walks in New York City, The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in New York City. Research for the book had Helmreich walking city streets nearly every day for four years, and he later expanded his work by following up with specific guides for each borough.
“I love the city,” Helmreich was quoted as saying. “I love to read about the city, to live the city, to walk the city.”
Born in Switzerland in 1945 to parents who were Holocaust survivors, Helmreich came to the United States as an infant and grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He went to Yeshiva University for college and obtained his doctorate at Washington University in St. Louis. He lived most of his life in Great Neck, on New York’s Long Island, where he was part of the local Orthodox Jewish community. Helmreich was a member of Great Neck Synagogue.
“Willie was in precisely the wrong profession for the coronavirus: He was a sociologist and he loved interacting with people,” Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna told JTA. “Social distancing was not in his nature.”
Helmreich’s other books include, The World of the Yeshiva, Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives they Made in America, and The Black Crusaders: A Case Study of a Black Militant Organization.
At the City University of New York, Helmreich held the title of “distinguished professor,” the highest academic honor that CUNY bestows on its faculty.
Helmreich is survived by his wife, Helaine, and three children. A fourth child died two decades ago.