In the summer, when attention turns to Island beaches and visitors come off the ferry in droves, a speaker series offers a chance to think about the world beyond Vineyard shores.
The Summer Institute speaker series at the Hebrew Center, now in its 13th year, aims to provide affordable, thought-provoking discussions, said Summer Institute committee chairman, Geraldine Alpert.
The idea is to enrich the cultural and intellectual life of the Island, Ms. Alpert said. “To enlighten.”
This year, that enlightenment will come from seven speakers slated to speak about issues ranging from the future of energy to the political landscape of the Middle East. The speaker series begins Thursday, July 5, with legal analyst and writer Jeffrey Toobin speaking about the Supreme Court and the Obama White House; the institute’s film series started last Sunday.
Mr. Toobin’s talk about the Supreme Court and the Obama White House will come a week after the court upheld most parts of President Obama’s health care act, including the individual mandate.
“We didn’t realize the Supreme Court decision would be coming down just before he speaks, so that was fortunate for us,” Ms. Alpert said. “It’s a little bit of luck, a little bit of foresight.”
“The timing is very fortunate, to say the least,” Mr. Toobin told the Gazette this week. “We will be coming off one of the most dramatic weeks in the history of the Supreme Court, and we’ll be talking about the court.”
Mr. Toobin — who said he’s been to the Vineyard only once, years ago — will also get some time to relax on the Island after a busy few weeks.
The talk is a preview of his upcoming book, The Oath: The Obama White House v. the Supreme Court, which is due in bookstores in September. It is a sequel to Mr. Toobin’s book The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court.
“Idealogical conflict that we are all so familiar with in Congress and in the race for the presidency is very much in evidence in the Supreme Court as well,” Mr. Toobin said, noting the court is a “deeply political institution with articulate partisans on both sides, and the stakes are enormous.”
Mr. Toobin said the health care decision will impact the past and future of the Obama presidency. “Obviously health care is the most important decision in many, many years,” he said.
Mr. Toobin, the son of journalists, once thought he never wanted to be a journalist, he recalled. But eventually, “genetic destiny kicked in.” He started writing about his work as one of the junior members of the prosecutorial team in Oliver North’s trial, and then left his job as an assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn to write for The New Yorker. Currently, he is also the senior legal analyst for CNN.
“Probably my most exciting professional memory is being handed the decision in Bush v. Gore on Dec. 12, 2000 and running to the camera [as an analyst for ABC News] to try to translate it,” he said.
“I have found the Supreme Court as a subject is endlessly rewarding, which is fortunate.”
The series is supported by individual donations, and Ms. Alpert said the number of donors and the amount of the donations are on the rise. “People want to be part of the Summer Institute,” she said.
The program is usually attractive to people who live on the Vineyard, Ms. Alpert said. “For people who are here all year-round and here for the whole summer, they want to keep their minds active, and they want to be stimulated, so there is a hunger in that sense,” she said. “They want to learn something. And we have a focus on learning.”
Low ticket prices (the speaking events have suggested donations of $15) and a wide range of ideas and opinions make the series appealing to a wide audience, regardless of religion and political persuasion, Ms. Alpert said. “We want to make this accessible to as many people as possible... we’re not representing any particular point of view. The idea is for people to learn about other points of view.”
The Sunday film line-up includes movies from Germany, Israel and the Czech republic, and the institute collaborated with the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society to show Footnote, an Israeli film nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language picture.
The institute is hoping to replicate the success of last summer, Ms. Alpert’s first as committee chair.
“Last year was tremendously successful, we had standing room only at practically every speaker,” she said.
In October, the committee convened to start planning for this year. The group created a list of ideal speakers, she said, and then tried to “convince them to come to our beautiful Island, and take it from there.”
It isn’t too difficult, though, to lure people to Martha’s Vineyard in the summer. “That’s one of the inducements to coming,” Mrs. Alpert said, getting the chance to spend the weekend.
The speaker series continues on July 12 with Jared Bernstein, the former chief economist and economic adviser for vice president Joe Biden. Ben Wizner, who specializes in security, human rights and first amendment issues for the American Civil Liberties Union, headlines on July 19.
On July 26, political heavyweight David Gergen — a former White House advisor to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton — will talk about the upcoming 2012 election. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind takes the stage on August 9 to discuss the evolution of Barack Obama, and journalist and Middle East expert Robin Wright addresses the Middle East in turmoil on August 2.
Daniel Yergin, whom Ms. Alpert called “the world’s foremost expert on energy” is the final speaker of the series.
“I guess what I learned is that people are very interested in what’s happening now,” Ms. Alpert said. While there’s interest in history, people are “much more interested in the moment.”
She also offered a piece of advice to attendees: with first-come, first-served seating it will be crowded.
“Come early,” she said.
For a complete schedule of Summer Institute events, visit www.mvsummerinstitute.com. All events are at the Harriet B. Freedberg Learning Center at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, 130 Center street, Vineyard Haven. Thursday speaker series events start at 7:30 p.m., and there is a suggested donation of $15; Sunday film series events start at 7:30 p.m. with a suggested donation of $10.