American University’s Center for Israel Studies is now the Meltzer Schwartzberg Center for Israel Studies, recognizing an April 16 joint “multimillion-dollar commitment” from Alan—a trustee at the private university in Washington, D.C.—and Amy Meltzer, and Jaime and Andrew Schwartzberg.
The donation came as the center—which then-former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who would later become president, inaugurated in 1998—celebrates its 25th year, and Israel celebrates its 75th.
In addition to being a university trustee, Meltzer completed a bachelor’s degree at American in 2021. He told JNS that he attended American in 1969 on a wrestling scholarship but dropped out some five classes before graduating to run a bar that he purchased full-time.
“In all honesty, if I didn’t have a scholarship, I wasn’t intellectually thinking about going to college to become real smart, to become a doctor,” he said. “I went there because the alternative was the Vietnam War or to go to college and wrestle, which I loved.”
When Meltzer was growing up in Needham, Mass., his family had no money, and he always worked. In college, he worked at a bar, saving up enough money to buy it. The business proved successful, and so he bought another bar and then another, he told JNS.
For five years, he dated the woman who would become his wife, and the two agreed that his running the three bars would not be conducive to the kind of marriage and family life they wanted. So he sold the bars and went into the insurance business.
“I did very well,” he told JNS.
He sold the Meltzer Group, which he founded in 1982 and which employed 400 people, in 2016 to NFP.
‘I had antisemitism quite a bit’
In Needham, Meltzer grew up in an area with few Jews. He went to the Conservative Temple Emanuel Conservative in Newton and studied in Hebrew school.
“I was very culturally Jewish, if not religiously Jewish,” he told JNS. “My grandparents lost relatives in the Holocaust. I was brought up in a Conservative Jewish background.”
His father worked at Stop & Shop, and the family moved to Connecticut for two years when the supermarket chain opened up there. He celebrated his bar mitzvah at Congregation B’nai Jacob in Woodbridge, Conn., where, coincidentally, Rabbi Abraham Arthur Chiel was the brother of Rabbi Samuel Chiel, who led the Newton temple. He also recalled going to High Holiday services, “spending the whole day there” at Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline, Mass., with both of his grandfathers.
“My father was not much into religion. My mother was more,” he said.
In Needham, he experienced “quite a bit” of antisemitism. At the Stop & Shop where he worked, the grocery manager would call him “Jew boy” and “kike,” he said. “Interesting that he worked for a Jewish guy.” (The Rabb family created Stop & Shop.)
“Even though I was pretty tough—I was a very good wrestler—I was still a 15-, 16-year-old kid. I wrestled probably 120 (pounds) in high school,” he said. “This guy was probably 250 pounds.”
The Six-Day War “changed my life as far as Israel,” Meltzer said. “I was extraordinarily proud of Israel. I remember listening to Abba Eban, but we didn’t have the money to go to Israel.” (The South Africa-born Eban served as Israeli ambassador to the United States and to the United Nations.)
Both of his parents worked; there was no money for them to visit. “But Israel was very, very important to me,” he said. “And the Jews winning that war was something that I will always remember. I was very proud.”
‘Much better able to have a civil conversation’
Meltzer chose American over the University of Massachusetts for college. “I loved my mother, but getting away from her by 500 miles wasn’t the worst thing that happened to me,” he said.
And he chose it again when he decided to go back to school to finish up his final five classes. “I work all the time, and I have children and grandkids, but I wanted to go back and finish my degree,” he said. “They put together a curriculum for me that was very challenging.”
Having gotten to know Peter Starr, provost and chief academic officer, as a board member at American for 12 or 13 years, afforded him no special privileges.
“I read all the books. I can tell you, God’s truth, I called up the provost Peter Starr and said, ‘I can’t effing do this. There is no way I’m going to do this.’ And he said, ‘There’s no way you’re going to earn a degree—we’ll give you a degree, but you’re not going to earn it,’ ” he said.
His math professor recommended a student at American to tutor him. She did so every day for four-and-a-half months. “I got an 89.7 on the final, and the effing teacher would not give me an A. I got a B+,” Meltzer said. (He hired the student who tutored him, and she proved the best employee he has hired in a decade, he added.)
He estimates that he read 40 books and didn’t miss a class.
In 1981, Meltzer had gone to Israel with his wife, who is Catholic. “She broke down at Yad Vashem. I don’t think she had any idea of exactly what the Holocaust did,” he said.
Meltzer says he has been back more than 20 times. His daughter was a crew coach in the 2009 Maccabi Games, and his son won four medals wrestling at the games.
He thinks the press focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the exclusion of what Israel is really about.
“They built a country that had no water, no defense, no technology, no medicine, nothing. They’ve taught the world about water,” he said. “What Israel does as a country now is very important.”
“I think Israel is between a rock and a hard place. I can tell you this. If Wellesley started bombing Needham, Needham would start bombing Wellesley,” he said of a town neighboring the one in which he grew up. “There’s absolutely a double standard about Israel in the United Nations and in the press. If Jews are so smart, they sure need to hire a better press agent.”
Education can make a difference, he said, which is why he is supporting Israel studies at American University. “It’s difficult to change the facts, and if people are educated, then they are much better able to have a civil conversation and come to terms with each other,” he said.
The Meltzers previously supported a fellowship and an annual conference at the center.