Speaker series at Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center

Author Sebastian Junger, well-known for his book "The Perfect Storm," will speak at the Hebrew Center July 28. — Photo courtesy of MVHC

“From the front lines of politics, science and the arts,” is how the Summer Institute’s website describes their weekly lecture series’ speakers. And it’s no exaggeration. Past speakers have included a Nobel Laureate, a handful of Pulitzer Prize winners, journalists associated with such publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker, foreign ambassadors, and a number of cabinet members.

“It’s become the preeminent intellectual program on the Vineyard,” says Nis Kildegaard, Summer Institute staff member. This summer, a well-rounded lineup will add another illustrious season to the initiative that was started 13 years ago with the idea of enhancing the intellectual life of the Island.

Among the Summer Institute speakers this year will be Congressman Barney Frank (July 21) speaking on “Protecting National Security by Cutting Our Military Spending;” bestselling author Sebastian Junger (July 28) who will talk about his experiences on the frontlines in Afghanistan, which he has detailed in his latest book, “War;” and Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson (Aug 1), who will speak on the epic migration of African-Americans from the South in the 20th century — the subject of her critically acclaimed first book, “The Warmth of Other Suns.”

The Summer Institute, which makes its home in the comfortable environs of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center on Center Street in Vineyard Haven, will kick off the speaker series tonight with former Undersecretary of State and leading expert on the Middle East, R. Nicholas Burns. Mr. Burns, who spent 27 years serving in the state department and is now Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, will speak on the topic, “Revolution and Transformation in the Middle East: Challenges for the US.” Mr. Burns is viewed as one of the country’s most articulate spokespeople on globalization and U.S. foreign policy.

Next week’s program will focus on economic issues with a panel discussion featuring two Harvard professors, and global economist, forecaster, and strategist Allen Sinai. The evening’s topic will be “Global Economic Prospects: Have We Recovered? Where Are We Headed?” Says Geri Alpert, the newly appointed chair of the Summer Institute, “I’m an economist, so of course I wanted to have a program on the economy.” Ms. Alpert spent her career as a consultant to AT&T. She adds, however, “My goal was to have a diverse program that included a wide range of topics in all fields.”

Rounding out the program, the last two evenings will feature music. On August 11, concert pianist and psychiatrist Richard Kogan will return for one of his recital lectures that explore the role of music in healing and the influence of psychological forces on the creative output of composers. He will follow up last summer’s popular program on Schumann with a concert and talk titled “West Side Story: The Mind and Music of Leonard Bernstein.”

The final program on August 14 will be presented as part of the Martha’s Vineyard Jazz Festival and will feature two jazz musicians/musicologists both performing, and chronicling, the evolution of jazz.

Ms. Alpert tracks current affairs closely and reaches out to experts in a variety of fields. She has attended talks by all of this summer’s speakers, except for Ms. Wilkerson. “I’m really excited about Isabel Wilkerson,” she says. “Her book is really very moving and it reads like a novel. I was involved in the Sixties in the civil rights movement and thought I knew a lot about that time.”

Ms. Alpert says that she is asked all the time how the Institute manages to draw the in-demand speakers that it does, especially since they don’t provide an honorarium. “It’s a long process. You just need a little imagination and a lot of footwork,” she says.

She notes that the prospect of enjoying a trip to the Vineyard is often an incentive. The Institute, which is primarily funded by donors, houses the speakers at private homes or at local inns, and hosts a donors’ brunch in their honor the day following the evening lecture. The institution itself is a draw. “The Summer Institute has gained a good reputation for having eminent speakers,” Ms. Alpert says.

The other component of the Summer Institute is a weekly film series. In the past the Institute had an arrangement with the Boston Jewish Film Festival. This year, the organization has brought on Martha’s Vineyard Film Society’s director Richard Paradise as a consultant, and will present the film committee’s selections. Says Ms. Alpert, “We decided this year that we wanted to be able to have a broader pool of films from which to choose.” The summer lineup is a mix of comedies and dramas from around the world. The series is into its third week and will feature Sunday film screenings through Aug 7.

Summer Institute Speaker Thursdays, 7:30 pm, M.V. Hebrew Center, Vineyard Haven. July 7: Ambassador R. Nicholas Burns, Former U.S. Undersecretary of State, “Revolution & Transformation in the Middle East: Challenges for the U.S.” $15 suggested donation. 508-693-0745.

Gwyn McAllister, of Oak Bluffs, is a frequent contributor to The Times.