It's Our Seaside Think Tank - Hebrew Center's Summer Plans
By C.K. WOLFSON
In the midst of summer concerns about ferry lines and tan lines, the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center Summer Institute, entices hundreds of Island residents and visitors to consider subjects such as prejudice, medical and legal malpractice, terrorism and civil liberties, and engage in discussion.
They gather at the Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven - so many some have to be turned away - to attend the Island's seaside Chautauqua: the Summer Institute Scholar Series.
The Island summer allows one to reflect on solutions and possibilities while staring at a shoreline, after having heard an internationally known expert's views for a $15 donation at one of the Wednesday evening programs.
The Scholar Series also includes a Sunday evening series of provocative films, shown at the Hebrew Center, selected from the Boston Jewish Film Festival by a committee headed by Norman Sebell (founder of the film series) and Laura Roskind.
"The nice thing is that the entire Island has become involved," Mr. Sebell says, explaining that the films all have subjects that relate to Jewish themes, but are designed for general interest.
It began six years ago, the result of a dialogue between former Hebrew Center president Arthur Wortzel, retired from the foreign service, and Stanley Snider, a retired entrepreneur. The Hebrew Center had just moved from the old house it had occupied since the 1940s, to its current building on Center street.
Mr. Wortzel remembers that the Hebrew Center held a Fourth of July event focusing on different aspects of being American with David McCullough as the speaker. It became clear that the Vineyard was an extraordinary resource for talent and expertise, and that people were interested in provocative issues.
He adds, "I guess it all started from the feeling that our congregation was hardly a typical shul. We were committed to interacting with community."
Speaking from his current home in Wisconsin, he says he could not have envisioned the growth the Summer Institute has realized, crediting Mr. Snider with its development.
Mr. Snider, who, after five years, has now turned the chairmanship over to Carole Cohen, is as self-effacing as Mr. Wortzel, claiming the caliber of the people on the Vineyard are "a gold mine of talent."
He solicited universities around Boston as well as his own contacts for drawing celebrated speakers. He says he wanted people who had a mission, a cause, or point of view.
"As long as it's in the summer and it's Martha's Vineyard and it's a serious subject, you can get people to speak," he says. "I said, why can't we do the same thing as [Manhattan's] 92nd Street YMCA here?"
According to his friend, attorney Dan Kaplan, who oversaw the programs at that famous YMCA: "I think the real secret of this is that Stanley brought to the project an entrepreneur's conviction in his ability to make things happen and being willing to try. He knew how to do it and understood how to market it. The temple was very lucky that they had a member who had the time and wanted to bring something of pluralistic cultural values for the Island."
The new Summer Institute chairman, Mrs. Cohen, refers to Mr. Snider as "the guiding spirit." She recalls, "There were several nights in the middle of February when I woke up in a panic thinking, oh my God, I don't have the speakers lined up. And I thought, ‘Stanley, where are you when I need you?'"
On Wednesday, July 9, Dr. Lucian Leape, an activist in the patient safety movement and an adjunct professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health, will speak on Can We Stop Medical Errors?
This season's other speakers cover topics such as the Middle East, the human genome and ethnic identity and terriorism.
The films cover subjects from a Jewish cowboy to the Jewish chicken ranchers of Petaluma.
Sunday, July 6, at 7:30 p.m., the film Gloomy Sunday, titled after a torch song of the 1930s, will be shown. It depicts a love triangle set in Budapest.
The self-supporting program that used to struggle to meet expenses (the Summer Institute costs approximately $50,000 a season to produce) now supports capital improvements to the Hebrew Center with its surpluses. Funding comes from supporters such as the donors who contribute $1,000, rather than being drawn from the Hebrew Center's budget.
Joleen King, in her third year as program administrator, acts as liaison for speakers, arranges housing, coordinates travel accommodations - all done with a smile.
"Something about the Vineyard eliminates insanity," she says. The speakers "have a different mind set when they get to the Island. They've all been wonderful."
Mr. Snider notes, "I don't know a lot of summer places where a program like this could be so successful. The Vineyard is special in that people want intellectual stimulation, along with being able to go to the beach. There's a long tradition of education in Judaism. People are certainly learning something when they [attend the series], and it opens new areas of discourse."