Melton Mini-Schools alter adult learning

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — 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/busin-esswoman/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.

The 120-hour program — a rigorous, text-based diet of Jewish history, ethics and philosophy — is offered at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

Developed by a team of educators at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the curriculum does not endorse any one stream of Jewish thought, and the sites running the school are encouraged to hire teachers from all denominations.

More than 4,000 people are currently enrolled at 43 sites in North America, England and Australia. Since its inception in the mid-1980s, the school has graduated approximately 7,500 adults, most of whom continue Judaic studies elsewhere.

The school operates as a franchise, with community institutions paying $8,000 a year to use the curriculum and materials.

In San Francisco, 30 people have graduated from the program, which begins its third year on Wednesday, Oct. 6. Classes fall into four categories: "The Rhythms of Judaism," which outlines the lifecycle; "The Purposes of Jewish Living," which delves into Judaism's philosophical outlook; "The History of Judaism"; and "The Ethics of Judaism," which takes a text-based approach to Jewish ethics within a contemporary framework.

"The graduates have gone on to take leadership roles within their synagogues and on the boards of Jewish institutions, and in the community in general. This has been the beginning for them of further study.," said Yossi Offenberg, Jewish program manager at the JCC of S.F. In addition, "parents say now they're able to share with their children in their Jewish growth."

Melton dreamed up the school in 1980, after realizing that most American Jewish adults, having received only minimal religious education as children, were lacking Jewish knowledge. 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 recalled, 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 said of her now-deceased husband.

The initial rejections did not faze Melton, who listed perseverance as one of her most closely held values.

"What do you do when everyone else says it won't work?" she asked 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 attributed her own perseverance to growing up in a poor but close-knit family in Philadelphia.

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," the mother of two sons said. "I learned very early on that responsibility is very much a part of everyday life."

Today, living in a spacious high-rise apartment decorated with 19th century paintings and brass sculptures, Melton is hardly impoverished.

The list of Jewish and secular organizations that she has supported with volunteer time and money is long. It includes the Jewish federations of Columbus, Ohio, and Boca Raton, Fla., her local Conservative synagogue and a halfway house for teenage boys.

For two years in the 1950s, Melton hosted a young girl who ran away from Hungary after the Soviet-backed clampdown 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 points to the example of her own grandmother, an immigrant from Ukraine. "She was a very warm, loving and observant Jew," Melton recalled. "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."