Community loses ‘great heroine’

Community loses ‘great heroine’

When Florence Melton, founder of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-Schools, died on Feb. 8 at the age of 95, she left behind a rich legacy, with thousands of students around the world attending schools bearing her name.

Florence Melton will be remembered for the many schools that bear her name.

"The program is probably the most important adult education program going on anywhere because of what it brings to people’s lives and to the Jewish world," said Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, a columnist for this paper and a teacher for 1′ years at the local Melton Mini-School.

Developed at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School was launched in 1986 in North America. Today, the program boasts 63 mini-schools in five countries.

Bergen County’s Florence Melton Mini-School opened at the JCC on the Palisades in 1989, becoming part of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey 10 years later. In 1988, Vivian Kanig, the school’s coordinator from 1989 to 1999, attended a meeting of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education at the Hebrew University, where the Melton program was presented. After seeing one of the pilot programs, Kanig brought the school to the JCC on the Palisades.

"We wanted it [available] throughout the entire county," said Kanig.

Currently, ‘0’ students between the ages of ‘8 and 78 are enrolled in the two-year program through UJA-NNJ, according to Renah Rabinowitz, UJA-NNJ’s director of the Melton Mini-School.

It was Melton’s "dream and impetus" that created the program, she added.

Her second husband, Sam Melton, started the Melton Centre at the Hebrew University, focusing primarily on children. "Florence Melton came and said we need something like this for adults," Kanig said. Melton worked directly with the scholars who developed the curricula for the new school, taking on a large amount of work, said Kanig.

"The difference between Florence Melton and other philanthropists is that she didn’t just finance it, she took a very [active] part in seeing that the program was successful and all the kinks and problems were worked out in a positive way," she said.

Rabinowitz remembered the few times she met Melton at directors’ conferences and how invigorated she felt by Melton’s energy.

"She made an amazing contribution to Jewish learning," she said. "Even until her last days, she was thinking of new and creative ways to make a contribution to Jewish education worldwide."

At the age of 91, Melton developed a new education program for teenagers, similar to the adult Melton program. It is currently being tested in Columbus, Pittsburgh, and Chicago.

"Florence Melton is a great heroine of the Jewish people," Engelmayer said. "She recognized that we are dealing with a generation of Jews who truly lack basic Jewish knowledge, and moved to correct that problem."

The international Melton Mini-School programs claim ‘0,000 alumni and more than 5,000 students now studying in five countries.

In 1946, with her first husband and business partner, Aaron Zacks, Melton founded the R.G. Barry Corp., which produces slippers and other footwear. Through R.G. Barry, she created the world’s first foam-soled soft washable slipper.

Melton’s devotion to education and Jewish life earned her many accolades, including 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. In 1994, she was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame.

Melton is survived by 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.

Melton, Rabinowitz said, was "just a brilliant, vibrant, creative woman who had an impact on thousands and thousands of people around the world."

Moira Schneider of JTA contributed to this report.

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