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Published: Friday, 10/1/2004

Widely respected rabbi later managed real estate

Rabbi Melbourne Harris, who was once assistant to Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver in Cleveland and who was one of only a few rabbis nationwide who performed interfaith marriages, died yesterday in the Sunset Village retirement home in Sylvania. He was 100.

Rabbi Harris died of heart disease. The Sylvania resident had lived on his own until age 98, when he moved into Sunset Village after suffering a broken hip in a fall at home.

Ordained in 1927, Rabbi Harris served congregations in San Francisco and Peoria, Ill., as assistant rabbi and head rabbi, respectively, during the early years of his rabbinical career.

From 1935 until 1944, he was the associate rabbi at Temple Tifereth Israel in Cleveland under Rabbi Silver, a renowned orator who addressed the United Nations in 1947 in an appeal for the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East. The partitioning of Palestine to create Israel occurred seven months later.

Alan M. Sokobin, rabbi emeritus of Temple-Congregation Shomer Emunim in Sylvania, said Rabbi Silver's status was almost as exalted among Jews as the Pope is among Roman Catholics, and that Rabbi Harris thus was quite prominent as his assistant.

"It was the most prestigious assistantship in the United States," Rabbi Sokobin said.

But in 1944, he took a leave of absence from the rabbinet to become a vice president of Sam Davis Co., his in-laws' real-estate management business in Toledo.

Rabbi Harris was active with the company until retiring, at age 89, in 1993, and remained on its board of directors until it liquidated five years later.

Though no longer affiliated with a congregation, Rabbi Harris retained his rabbinical authority and continued to perform religious rites until a few years before his death. In particular, he performed weddings - more than 1,800, he estimated in an interview last year, shortly before his 100th birthday.

"I was one of the only [rabbis] who would marry a Jew and a non-Jew," he said in the interview. "Most rabbis would not do it, but I thought that was bad for the congregation and bad for the individuals."

Rabbi Sokobin said rabbis willing to perform interfaith weddings remain rare.

Rabbi Harris "was a man who was not afraid to step out of the norm," he said. "I did not agree with him on that, but he had independence of thought, and courage."

Mr. Harris met Leora Davis while in college. His older brother, Samuel Harris, was a rabbi in Toledo at the time, and Miss Davis' father was the president of that congregation. They married in 1929. She died in 1983. Mr. Harris then married Constance Levison Krohngold, a longtime family friend, and they were married eight years before her death.

Ronald A. Harris, Rabbi Harris' son, said his father was a principled man who was "very determined to control his own life."

A native of Oakland, Calif., Rabbi Harris was part of a generation of rabbis at the Jewish Institute of Religion and Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati who were trained in rabbinic scholarship - "a highly intelligent and exceedingly talented group of men," Rabbi Sokobin said.

Rabbi Harris was "one of the finest graduates of that period," Rabbi Sokobin said, describing Rabbi Harris as thoughtful, articulate, able, and charming.

During World War II, Rabbi Harris served as a civilian chaplain for military bases in northern Ohio that did not have their own assigned chaplains, Rabbi Sokobin said.

Surviving are his son, Ronald A., three grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

A graveside memorial service will be held at 1:30 p.m. Sunday in Historic Woodlawn Cemetery. The J. Jeffrey Fretti Funeral Home is handling arrangements. The family suggests tributes to Temple-Congregation Shomer Emunim, 6453 Sylvania Ave., Sylvania Township.



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