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PROFILE A ‘prophetess’ in adult education attributes success to perseverance

COLUMBUS, Ohio, Aug. 17 (JTA) — What do removable shoulder pads, foam-lined slippers and a popular two-year program of adult Jewish learning have in common? All are the creations of Florence Melton, an indomitable 87-year-old inventor/businesswoman/philanthropist described by her admirers as a “prophetess.” In 1946, Melton’s foam-lined slippers revolutionized the footwear industry and jump-started a company, the R.G. Barry Corp., that is still in existence. In a similar fashion, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School is now revolutionizing the field of Jewish education. Since its inception in the mid-1980s, the 120-hour program — which offers a rigorous, text-based diet of Jewish history, ethics and philosophy — has graduated 7,500 adults, most of whom continue Judaic studies elsewhere. Developed by a team of educators at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the curriculum does not endorse any one stream of Jewish thought, and sites running the school are encouraged to hire teachers from all denominations. Over 3,000 people are currently enrolled at 43 sites in North America, England and Australia. And the school, which operates as a franchise, with community institutions paying $8,000 a year to use the curriculum and materials, has sold itself mostly through word of mouth. “No one looks for new sites,” Melton says in an interview at her Columbus, Ohio, home. “They come to us.” Melton dreamed up the school in 1980, after realizing that most American Jewish adults, having received only minimal religious educations as children, were Jewishly illiterate. And she believed the one-time lectures most communities offered as adult education just weren’t enough. Today, the school enjoys an almost cult-like following and is widely credited as being the inspiration for other long-term adult Jewish learning programs. Paul Flexner, the Jewish Education Service of North America’s professional responsible for adult education, called the mini-school a “pioneer,” adding, “It’s had a wonderful impact on a whole lot of people and communities.” But Melton faced resistance when she first sought partners to develop the project. Institutions she approached “thought it was idiosyncratic,” Melton recalls, saying that everyone told her adults would not commit to a two-year course. Finally, Melton used the philanthropic ties of her husband, Sam, to bring the Hebrew University — where he’d set up the Melton Centre for Jewish Education in the Diaspora — on board. “He told me he didn’t believe in the idea, but he believed in me,” Melton says of her now-deceased husband. The initial rejections did not faze Melton, who lists perseverance as one of her most closely held values. “What do you do when everyone else says it won’t work?” she asks rhetorically. “You have to say, I’m sorry, but I believe it will. Then you put your money and time and energy into it to make it come to fruition.” Melton attributes her own perseverance to growing up in a poor, but close-knit family in Philadelphia. She recalls entertaining herself as a child with dolls made of clothespins. Three months before she was to graduate from high school, she dropped out so she could work full time to help pay for her sister’s wedding. “In those days, families did what they needed to do,” says the mother of two sons. “I learned very early on that responsibility is very much a part of everyday life. There was no question as to whether you put your mind to it and got it done or just said forget it because it’s tough.” Today, living in a spacious high-rise apartment decorated with 19th century paintings and brass sculptures, Melton is hardly impoverished. But though she comes off as a little bossy at times — telling a visiting reporter that the ensuing article would probably be too long — she is hardly pretentious or aristocratic. Melton greets visitors wearing slacks and an old Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education T-shirt. Her living room is comfortably cluttered with videotapes and books. An avid reader, Melton never went to college and is largely self-educated. She has studied in her own schools and frequently pops into classes, soliciting feedback from students. The list of Jewish and secular organizations which Melton has supported with volunteer time and money is long. It includes the Jewish federations of Columbus and Boca Raton, Fla., her local Conservative synagogue and a halfway house for teen-age boys. In Columbus, she initiated a Jewish outreach program for interfaith families and the “Discovery Program,” a post-Bar Mitzvah curriculum that culminates in trips to Israel and New York. For two years in the 1950s, Melton hosted a young girl who ran away from Hungary after the a Soviet-backed clampdown there began in 1956. Her latest project is “Hebrew Chocolate,” a new method being developed by linguists to teach Hebrew to adults. A grandmother of six and great-grandmother of 10, Melton attributes her volunteerism — and Jewish commitment — to her own grandmother, an immigrant from Ukraine. “She was a very warm, loving and observant Jew,” recalls Melton. “In her kitchen she had a black leather couch, where you’d often find a person who needed a kosher meal or a place to stay.” Melton has many fans. “She has more ideas in five minutes than any single person I’ve ever met,” says Carol Folkerth, associate director of the Columbus JCC, adding that Melton is an “inspiration.” As a mini-school instructor for seven years, Hal Lewis, the new president and chief executive officer of the Columbus Jewish Federation, knew of Melton, who he calls a “prophetess,” long before moving to her hometown. “She understands the needs of the Jewish community in a way very few people ever have,” he says. “I think she’s a genius.”