Florence Melton will forever be immortalized in the schools of adult Jewish education around the world that bear her name.
Melton, who died Feb. 8 in Florida at age 95, was a philanthropist, entrepreneur, lecturer, yoga teacher and poet who stayed active even in her advancing years.
Born in Philadelphia to Russian immigrant parents, Melton never graduated from high school, but described herself as having been born with “an extra amount of curiosity.” It was that curiosity that led to a pioneering concept in adult Jewish education, one that would become a global enterprise.
In her 70s, Melton proposed a two-year program that would provide answers to religious and spiritual questions.
The Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, developed at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was launched in 1986 with three pilot sites in North America. Today it’s the largest pluralistic adult education network in the world with 63 mini-schools in 62 cities in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa.
Professor Menachem Magidor, president of Hebrew University, described Melton as “small in frame” but “a leader, an absolute giant.” Melton, he said, was “one of the great investors in the Hebrew University and thereby in the Jewish people at large with her establishment of The Florence Melton Adult Mini-School Institute.”
“We shall miss her creativity and commitment to adult Jewish education,” Magidor said.
Betsy Katz, North American director of the mini-school, had a 20-year association with Melton. She said the enterprise was “a priceless legacy for the Jewish community and for every individual it has touched.”
Katz called Melton “a woman of dignity, persistence and warmth.”
The mini-school’s international director, Yonatan Mirvis, who is based at the Melton Center headquarters at Hebrew University, described Melton as “very much a ‘people person.’ It was because of her that this program developed. She really understood what people wanted.”
Mirvis recalled that “Florence was committed to quality adult Jewish education, she believed in setting high standards and felt strongly that adults should pay tuition fees and become demanding ‘customers.’ In the ’80s, these concepts were no less than revolutionary.”
Melton saw her philanthropy as an investment. The returns: Jews studying and increasing the commitment to their roots.
After the death of her first husband she married Sam Melton, a philanthropist who had been involved in financing Jewish education worldwide. From his research she adopted the idea of the “interactive classroom” where students could be active, rather than passive, learners.
The program was intended to remedy what Melton saw as a major deficiency in the Jewish educational system.
In a recent interview at the annual reunion brunch of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School Alumni Association of South Palm Beach County, Fla., Melton said she had believed that children were being taught “how to celebrate the holidays, conduct services and read Hebrew” but had no idea about “their history, Jewish values, the ideas of Judaism and why they should be proud to be Jewish.”
To achieve these goals, she envisioned specially trained teachers as well as independence from Jewish organizations. Melton retained her interest in the mini-schools’ development, serving first as board chairwoman and later as chairwoman emeritus.
Melton said she believed she had “opened up the windows for learning opportunities for adults regardless of upbringing, beliefs or background. We linked the concept of the intellectual and the spiritual in learning what the Torah has to say about life and to argue and debate and comment.”
Her lifelong passion for Jewish education garnered her many awards, among them honorary doctorates from Hebrew University and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America; the Scopus Award from the American Friends of the Hebrew University; the Mesorah Award for Jewish Educational Leadership from JESNA; and the Ohio State University Distinguished Service Award. She was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in October 1994.
Melton’s true legacy can be measured in the 20,000 alumni and more than 5,000 students in five countries whose lives she touched through her foresight and determination.
Survivors include her son, Gordon, chairman of the board of R.G. Barry Corp. and The Florence Melton Adult Mini-School; six grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.