Public service is in Dan Helmer’s blood. The Fairfax County resident and member of Temple B’nai Shalom in Fairfax Station has represented HD-40 in the Virginia House of Delegates since his election in 2019.
In addition, the Rhodes Scholar and small business owner served in the U.S. military from 2003-2014, including tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and South Korea, and still serves as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves. Helmer recently announced his candidacy for the U.S. Congress and is hoping to succeed Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.), who announced that she is not seeking reelection in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District.
The grandson of Holocaust survivors and son of an Israeli father who fought the British as a member of the Palmach and the Haganah under Moshe Dayan in 1948 during Israel’s War of Independence, Helmer said his family and upbringing helped shape the person he has become.
For Helmer, the most formative experience of his youth was the annual Passover Seder, which took on added significance because his great grandfather, great-grandmother, grandmother and great aunt were all Holocaust survivors. For them, recounting the story of the Exodus was particularly poignant.
“The United States had been our promised land – the Exodus had happened in the lifetimes of those around the table, and the Seder ended with two songs. One was God Bless America, and the other was Hatikvah. We very much knew where our promised lands were,” he said.
“I grew up knowing what this country had given to our family, the protection that it afforded us as Jews, and grew up wanting to pay that back. And that has set me on a lifetime of service, whether that was going to West Point and serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, whether that’s my continued service in the Virginia House of Delegates where I’ve been leading the fight to combat hate crimes, most recently with a new bill that we just proposed, and whether it’s serving to looking to serve on a new level as a candidate for U.S. Congress.”
Helmer’s military service, both past and present, is a particular point of pride, which is driven by his Jewish identity, his family’s history and his desire to spread the light of democracy around the globe.
“My Jewishness is deeply tied to service. I often think of Tikkun Olam, and I think of it oftentimes in terms of America’s role in the world too as a Jew who serves in a couple of the instruments of American power. I believe deeply in the force of our country for good and prosperity and peace in the world … And I think about … our small family story as part of a larger world story of what America’s promise is, not just for Americans, but for all people, when we assume the mantle of leadership in the world. And I see military service as part of ensuring that mantle of leadership continues well into the 21st century.”
Helmer’s pursuit of elected office originated with Donald Trump’s election to the White House, when he felt that the constitution was under attack “because we had too few politicians willing to stand up and fight for our democracy.”
“Just as I had served to protect our country overseas, I felt I needed to serve protect it here at home. And that launched my career in public service, and I’m proud to have been able to stand up for democracy … And I have felt that idea of service that I experienced as an active-duty military officer … is something that I’m able to continue in a different way through my service in the General Assembly in Virginia,” he said.
Helmer recently introduced legislation to combat antisemitism by amending Virginia’s hate crimes and anti-discrimination law to protect individuals targeted for crimes and discrimination based on ethnicity. With the current rise of antisemitism, Helmer said that “we need to take meaningful, active measures to combat antisemitism and that rhetoric alone will not do the trick.”
“I was proud to sponsor this hate crimes legislation that ensures that if you attack somebody because they are a Jew, if you desecrate their home or their synagogue because they are a Jew, that you are committing a crime. If you deny them accommodation because they are a Jew, you are at odds with our law. And that ought to be the law of our land.”
In 2021, Helmer was the target of a campaign mailer that many deemed to be antisemitic, and he’s very mindful of the growing threat that antisemitism poses to the Jewish community and to the nation at large.
“I’m a big believer that political power matters and my response to an antisemitic mailer was to ensure we defeated the perpetrators of that antisemitic mailer at the ballot box,” he said. “My response to antisemitism writ large has been to put forward a bill to take on hate crimes because I think we need to take meaningful action. And I’m proud of the fact that the Jewish community is standing up to defend our democracy because in the system of government that has allowed us to thrive, allowed families like mine to thrive, we must protect that.”
Helmer hopes that his congressional campaign will enable him to make a meaningful difference in Washington, D.C., on the issues that he cares most about and that he believes are important for the welfare of the nation.
He intends to focus on gun violence prevention and making sure “that we are keeping the weapons like those I carried in places like Iraq and Afghanistan out of the hands of dangerous people.”
In addition, he said “we need to affirmatively, positively and forever protect a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions and we need to stand up and fight for working families.”
An avid reader who just finished reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant, Helmer also enjoys attending his teenage sons’ various activities and playing board games with his family.
For Helmer, his commitment to fighting for democracy and fighting antisemitism centers on making sure “that every single American, including American Jewry, has a seat at the table and the ability to stand up for our communities, stand together, have our voices heard, and make sure that our policy reflects the America that we want to see here at home as well as abroad.”