Melbourne Harris said he followed his older brother, Samuel, into the ministry, earning rabbinical degrees from the former Jewish Institute of Religion and Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
“I thought it was a good profession and I had the talent,” he said.
It s been 76 years since his ordination and Mr. Harris is preparing to celebrate his 100th birthday on Wednesday.
“I m having a party. I m looking forward to it,” said the sharp-eyed Reform rabbi.
Mr. Harris moved into the sprawling Sunset Village retirement home in Sylvania last year. He lived on his own until he suffered a hip injury in a fall at home, said his son, Ronald, of San Francisco.
The native of Oakland, Calif., moved to Ohio to study for the rabbinate. After his 1927 ordination, he served three congregations, one in San Francisco, one in Peoria, Ill, and the third in Cleveland.
“I was associate rabbi at Congregation Tifereth Israel [in Cleveland],” Mr. Harris said. “It was the largest congregation in America. I was the assistant to Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, one of the most famous rabbis of the 20th century.”
Rabbi Silver, who lived from 1893-1963, was a renowned orator who addressed the United Nations in 1947 in an appeal to create a Jewish state. Seven months after his speech, the U.N. approved the partition of Palestine and the creation of Israel.
“I was a civilian chaplain during World War II,” Mr. Harris said.
After the war, he decided to enter the business world, joining the Toledo-based Sam Davis Co., founded by his in-laws, as a vice president in 1944. He retired at age 89.
Mr. Harris has retained his rabbinical powers, however, and continued to perform religious rites until a few years ago.
“I have performed more than 1,800 weddings,” he said, including the marriages of his son and his grandson.
Mr. Harris said he was one of the first rabbis in the nation to perform interfaith marriages.
“I was one of the only ones who would marry a Jew and a non-Jew. Most rabbis would not do it, but I thought that was bad for the congregation and bad for the individuals.”
He said he has seen many changes in American Judaism over the decades, but declined to discuss them.
Ronald Harris said age may have slowed his father down, but even at 99 he remains mentally sharp.
“He s unbelievable. He s very lucid. For his 95th birthday, he took the whole family to Hawaii.”
Mr. Harris has received 100th-birthday congratulatory letters and cards from a number of politicians including President Bush, U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, and U.S. Rep. Mike DeWine.
He also has received a letter from Rabbi David Komerofsky, dean of students at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, informing him that he is the school s oldest living alumnus.
Mr. Harris said he credits his longevity to his good habits. “I never smoke. I never drank. And I was an athlete. I played basketball, tennis, and baseball,” he said. “I ve had a good life.”
- DAVID YONKE