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Rabbi Honored for Six Decades of Leadership

June 24, 2010 By:
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Rabbi Julius Meles
When Rabbi Julius Meles moved to Northeast Philadelphia to help launch Young Israel of Oxford Circle in 1954, the brand-new congregation couldn't afford to pay his salary.

So, Meles decided, for practical reasons, to go into the glass business with his brother, installing windows and following in the footsteps of their father, who did similar work in Pruzsana, Poland. But he remained the shul's rabbi, bolstering the burgeoning Orthodox community in a variety of ways, including working as a shochet, or kosher slaughterer.

Even when the synagogue finally could offer Meles a salary years later, the rabbi and others noted that he said no thanks; the shul could use the money instead.

For the remainder of his career there, Meles never drew a paycheck from the congregation, even after his own family sold the business in 1999.

"He never wanted to force that issue," said the rabbi's wife, Clara Meles. "He really felt bad because it was just forming, and there was just a few people -- and half of them were his family."

Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, said that "when Meles started the shul, he was everything. There was no one else."

Following the Demographics
Meles -- who led the Oxford Circle congregation for 55 years, until its closure in 2009 -- was a featured honoree last month at Young Israel's annual gala in New York.

The recipient of the Lifetime Rabbinic Achievement Award spent more than 60 years -- all told -- serving as a religious leader. Starting around 1948, he ran a day school in New Jersey, and then headed up Tikvas Israel Synagogue in West Philadelphia.

But the rabbi recalled that as demographics shifted and Jews started to move out of West Philadelphia, the shul was forced to shut its doors. In a way, history repeated itself when, last year, after two decades of declining membership, the Oxford Circle leadership informed the National Council of Young Israel that they were formally closing the congregation.

Although housed in a small building, at its height in the 1960s, the synagogue had several hundred members, as well as an active Hebrew school.

The rabbi himself has since relocated from Oxford Circle to the Rhawnhurst section of the Northeast, which is home to five Orthodox congregations. The nearest Young Israel synagogue is in Elkins Park. Meles now attends Congregation B'nai Israel-Ohev Zedek on Castor Avenue.

"It's hard for me to talk about it because it upsets me a lot because it's closed, and because all my buddies and my friends and my members -- they are all gone. The whole thing is like a dream," said Meles.

Meles and his family were able to leave Poland in 1938 -- a year before the Nazi invasion -- and settled in Philadelphia. After completing his rabbinical studies at the Yeshivas Torah Vodaas in Brooklyn, he accepted a position as head of a Talmud Torah in Bayonne, N.J.

There, he was introduced to Auschwitz survivor Clara Fischer. The couple recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. They have five children, 17 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. 

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