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Remembering an Icon

January 19, 2012 By:
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Blanche and Rabbi J. Harold Romirowsky

As a young father, Rabbi J. Harold Romirowsky used to buy day-old goods from the local bakeries and secretly leave them at the doors of families who needed help.

Over more than four decades at the helm of his Conservative synagogue in Northeast Philadelphia, he touched thousands of lives, from congregants to fellow rabbis in the area.

He died of pneumonia on Saturday at age 90, just a few weeks after chanting from the Torah on the anniversary of his Bar Mitzvah.

The Chicago native, born to Joseph and Leah Romirowsky, studied history at Roosevelt College before moving to New York to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary.

From his first congregation in Clifton, N.J., he moved to Pottsville, Pa. and then applied to take over the fledgling Oxford Circle Jewish Community Center. By the time he arrived in the 1950s, the congregation had a small building on Unruh Avenue next to a field where they used to set up a tent for High Holiday services.

Under his leadership, they built a synagogue that occupied the entire block, with membership eventually swelling to about 1,200 families.

When a nearby Methodist church suffered a fire, Romirowsky offered their sanctuary as a temporary home. That formed the foundation for future interdenominational activities, family members said.

He was "a giving machine, fueled by his passion for goodness, for healing and for making the lives of all with whom he had contact a little lighter, a little brighter," his son Sam Romirowsky wrote in a eulogy delivered at the rabbi's funeral on Monday.

Because of his communal influence, he frequently met with government and civic leaders, including Israeli prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir on one of his many trips to the Jewish state. He also served on a multitude of boards, from the Jewish Community Relations Council to the Zionist Organization of America.

For Lynne Poritsky, Romirowsky was like a part of her family for three generations. He officiated when her parents celebrated her baby naming, when she got married and when two of her children had their Bar Mitzvahs.

"It was my privilege and honor to have him be my rabbi for all those years," said Poritsky, breaking into tears."You always expect your parents to die but you never expect your rabbi, who is such an integral part of your life."

Despite his commitment to the community, family members said, he worked hard to make sure he never short-changed them. He took his three sons -- Mitchell, Samuel and Reuben -- to Phillies games and individually taught them songs, prayers and Torah every Saturday afternoon.

He attended his grandchildren's school plays and visited them at summer camp. As they grew older, he eagerly shared professional connections and marketing ideas.

Being related to such a well-known figure was a tremendous badge of honor, family members said, recalling how everyone who discovered the connection would launch into a litany of all the things the rabbi had done for them.

More amazing, in later recounting the exchange, Romirowsky would remember not only who the person was, but even his address, phone number, favorite color, what foods he liked and how the weather was on his Bar Mitzvah. He did this without referring to the handwritten notes that he had meticulously filed on each of his congregants.

"Before there was Google, there was my dad," joked Rabbi Mitchell Romirowsky. "It's not an accident that he was such a skilled Torah reader."

As the Jewish population shifted, the Oxford Circle congregation aged and dwindled. Even though several longtime members continued coming after moving out of the area, the synagogue shut down a few years after Romirowsky retired in 2000. The rabbi moved to Merion and, returning to his Orthodox roots, he and his wife, Blanche, joined the Lower Merion Synagogue.

No matter what physical ailment plagued him, when it came time to officiate at a grandchild's wedding, lead services or read Torah, he pulled through, said his grandson Asaf Romirowsky.

"He loved people and they loved being around him."

His devotion to his religion, Israel and his family, and his belief that you win people over with kindness was demonstrated in the way he lived his life every day, Asaf Romirowsky said.

Besides his wife and three children, Romirowsky is survived by a sister, Rose Gold Krupnick; seven grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

He was buried Tuesday in the Eretz HaChaim Cemetery near Jerusalem.

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