Rabbi Saul Leeman, a longtime leader of Conservative congregations in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and a civil rights activist who took part in the famed march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, has died at 100.
Leeman, who served the Cranston Jewish Center on Rhode Island and later Temple Shalom in Medford, Massachusetts, died April 5.
The Providence Journal reported that his death “severed a link between Rhode Island and the Civil Rights era, and between the Jewish and black communities.”
Raised in Brooklyn, New York, Leeman was a graduate of Brooklyn College and Yeshiva University’s Teachers Institute. He was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he later earned a doctorate in Bible studies. Before coming to Rhode Island, Leeman helped found the Israel Community Center of Levittown, Long Island, a New York suburb built after World War II for returning veterans.
In a 1996 interview with the Providence Journal, Leeman recalled joining the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of others on the 54-mile march that set off on March 21, 1965, from Selma to the Alabama state capital in a campaign for voting rights. It was the second of two marches that month; the first was blocked by state troopers and local police who beat demonstrators as they crossed Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The second march was protected by hundreds of federalized Alabama National Guardsmen and FBI agents.
“We could say we were not extended any Southern hospitality,” Leeman recalled. “As we marched, there were federal troops on each side of the road, with their rifles at hand. There were some helicopters hovering above. We felt as if we were in enemy territory.”
Leeman served two terms as president of the Rhode Island Board of Rabbis and was a member of the translating committee of the Hebrew Bible (Kethubim) for the Jewish Publication Society.
Leeman was predeceased by his wife of 68 years, Dr. Elsie Leeman, and a son, Michael. He is survived by his children and their spouses, Deborah and Peter Robbins; Joel and Sara; and David and Ramona; seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.