Summer Institute returns with a stellar lineup

David Gergen, the distinguished former advisor to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton, will speak July 26 on the political landscape in this election year. — Photo courtesy of Summer Institute

The Summer Institute began 15 years ago as a July 4 celebration organized by Stanley Snider and the late Arthur Wortzel at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center.

Mr. Snider, a developer of resort communities from Smuggler’s Notch in Vermont to Mattakesett in Edgartown, had worked with Mr. Wortzel (then president of the congregation) raising funds to build the new temple on Center Street in Tisbury. “Arthur was a great man,” recalls Mr. Snider, “and we had such a good time together. We had the Fourth of July coming up, and I said hey, this is a very important holiday – let’s do a celebration here that really amounts to something.”

That 1997 event featured Alan Dershowitz, Jemima James, the Klezmer Conservatory Band, and the NAACP Choir – and its success got Mr. Snider thinking. He and Mr. Wortzel decided to mount a series of summer lectures, soon broadening the program to include brunch with patrons on the morning after, and the Summer Institute was born.

Mr. Snider chaired the Summer Institute committee in its early years. He was followed by Carole Cohen, then Betsy Sheerr, and since last year the program has been chaired by Geraldine (Gerri) Alpert.

“Each new chairman has added depth,” says Mr. Snider. “I get a kick out of seeing that the Summer Institute apparently was a good idea, because we have so many patrons who are willing to support it now, and the programs have a great attendance.”

This year’s Summer Institute presents eight Sunday evening movies and seven speakers from the front lines of politics and economics, beginning at 7:30 pm this Thursday, July 5, with journalist and author Jeffrey Toobin, the nation’s leading authority on the Supreme Court. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more timely speaker for this moment, in the aftermath of the high court’s historic ruling on President Obama’s health care reform.

In fact, if you tried to list the questions in the forefront of national debate in this election year, you’d likely come up with something resembling the Summer Institute’s 2012 lineup.

Jared Bernstein, former director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class for the Obama administration, will speak July 12 on “Competing Visions about the Role and Size of Government.” Mr. Bernstein, the author of numerous books, is the man who gave us the phrase “YOYO economics,” meaning “you’re on your own,” as a way to talk about attempts to dismantle regulations and the social safety net.

Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, will speak July 19 on how new technologies are changing the future of privacy. David Gergen, the distinguished former advisor to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton, will speak July 26 on the political landscape in this election year.

Journalist Robin Wright, author of seven books on the Middle East, will speak August 2. Her talk, in a reference to her latest book, is entitled, “Rock the Casbah: The Middle East in Turmoil.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind’s topic for August 9 is “Hard Lessons: The Evolution of Barack Obama.” His latest best-seller, “Confidence Men, Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President,” was simply described by The New Yorker as “the book on Barack.”

Another Pulitzer-winner, Daniel Yergin, will conclude the speaker series on August 16 with a talk entitled “The Quest: The Future of Energy.” His latest book, “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World,” has been hailed by critics as “the book you must read to understand the future of our economy and our way of life.”

Over the years, the Summer Institute has grown, but the basic format has endured, and the engine that drives it is the support of its donors – patrons who contribute at least $1,000 each season for reserved seating in the Hebrew Center hall and admission to the brunches with speakers on the mornings after.

Many Summer Institute donors have been involved since the very beginning, says program administrator Joleen King, and a sense of community has grown up around the summer series: “We had our first film on June 24, with 150 attendees, and one of my staff told me afterwards that one of our donors came in the door, looked around and said, ‘Oh, I’m so glad to be here – it’s like coming home.'”

Gerri Alpert, chairman of the Summer Institute, says her own involvement began as a donor, enjoying the programs and making new friends. “Someone invited me to one of the brunches a few years ago,” she recalls. “I didn’t really know much about the Summer Institute then. I met some of the donors there, and we started coming to the programs, which we thought were great – and we made a lot of friends. In fact, I would say that the majority of our friends on the Island now are donors.”

In Mr. Snider’s view, this community-building is one of the most important aspects of the Summer Institute: “Once you attend a few programs and get to know some of the people, it starts to make a difference. You know, I’ve been in the vacation home business for 45 years. People come up to me and ask me for advice, and I say: Don’t buy the building, buy the community. Community is what it’s all about – people don’t want to just sit on the front porch and look out at the scenery. They want to have relationships with others, and the Summer Institute has made that possible to a great degree.”

Given the lineup of speakers this summer, Ms. King expects one of the hardest parts of her job will be dealing with sold-out houses at the Hebrew Center on Thursday nights. “I’m going to have the problem all summer, I’m afraid, of having to turn people away from a packed house. The doors open at 6:45 p.m., and we don’t sell tickets in advance.”

All Summer Institute programs begin at 7:30 pm. Admission is a suggested donation of $15 for Thursday forums, $10 for Sunday films. Information on the programs is available at

Mr. Kildegaard, a regular contributor to the Martha’s Vineyard Times, is publicist for the 2012 Summer Institute.