Melton, Florence

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MELTON, FLORENCE (1911– ), U.S. community leader and philanthropic supporter of a variety of Jewish causes. Melton is best known for envisioning and establishing a highly successful program of serious adult Jewish learning called the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School. She was born in Philadelphia, Penn., and raised under the influence of her grandmother, whom she credited for much of her commitment to Jewish education and Jewish values. In 1930 she married Aaron Zacks, with whom she had two sons. In 1946 she and her husband founded the R.G. Barry Corporation, one of the world's largest manufacturers of soled slippers. She invented the first use of foam in footwear and revolutionized the industry. Zacks died in 1965 and in 1968 she married Samuel Mendel Melton of Columbus, Ohio, a successful businessman and philanthropist. Samuel Melton had endowed the Melton Research Center at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Melton Centre at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Florence Melton became an active partner in his philanthropic projects as she pursued her own parallel interests.

In the early 1980s Melton became convinced that although many Jews were accomplished in their careers, they lacked basic knowledge about Jewish history, philosophy, and religious practices. Hence she began to advocate for the creation of a program of study to help adults attain "Jewish literacy." She envisioned a well-designed curriculum, taught by engaging and interactive teachers, open to students from across the various Jewish denominations. Adult students, in her view, would need to commit to two years of weekly study. Her ideas were met by skepticism; few people believed that contemporary adults were either interested in Jewish study or would want to view Jewish learning as seriously as her program proposed. Eventually she turned to the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University, which agreed to recruit sites and develop the curriculum for the project. Melton's idea turned out to be prescient. Proving the skeptics wrong, Mini-Schools were established in more than 60 cities and thousands of adult students participated in the program. Through its carefully designed organizational structure and its commitment to a serious learning curriculum the Mini-School became a model for adult education throughout the Jewish community.

In recognition of her communal leadership Melton received a number of awards, including honorary doctorates from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the Scopus Award from the American Friends of the Hebrew University, and the Ohio State University Distinguished Service Award. She was inducted into the Ohio Women's Hall of Fame in October 1994.

[Barry W. Holtz (2nd ed.)]