For the past 25 years, the Summer Institute at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center has showcased a series of notable speakers each summer. According to the institute’s website, these speakers traditionally hold their forums at the Hebrew Center on Thursday evenings, engaging with their audiences through topical and intellectual discussion.
Due to challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Summer Institute faced the possibility of postponing its 2020 series entirely. However, with quick adjustment, co-chairs Bruce and Shelly Eckman have implemented all changes necessary in order for the program to prosper this year.
“It can be a large group. Our biggest last year was close to 700 people,” Bruce Eckman said of previous programs. “When you have that many people in one place, it can be dangerous. It also tends to be an older population, so for those two reasons, we decided back in April not to hold [this year’s forums] in person.”
The Summer Institute 2020 speaker series will take place entirely via Zoom. Each forum will be accessible, for $25, through a link found on the Summer Institute website. According to Eckman, the Summer Institute has been working with an expert in Zoom and virtual learning in order to make the most of the service. “Rather than just have the regular Zoom that everyone is used to, we wanted to make it a little more interesting and exciting for the people who are sitting at home,” Eckman said.
The 2020 series will run from July 9 to August 13, each Thursday at 7:30 pm. The speakers come from a wide variety of backgrounds and interests, meaning each forum will bring something unique to the table. “We try to pick topics that are both intellectually challenging and relevant to the issues of today’s society,” Eckman said.
The series kicks off on July 9 with a forum led by E.J. Dionne Jr. As a Washington Post columnist, Georgetown University professor, and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Dionne’s forum will focus on political commentary, with the title “Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite and Save Our Country.”
Following Dionne’s forum is “How Satire Influences Culture … With an Emphasis on Politics.” This forum takes place on July 16, the original date set for the final night of the Democratic National Convention. Although that date has since been changed, Eckman expects the forum to maintain some relevancy. “We decided to poke some fun at it, so we’ve got two speakers who are comedy writers,” Eckman said.
Among these speakers will be Alan Zweibel, an Emmy-awardwinning writer for notable projects such as “Saturday Night Live,” “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Zweibel will be accompanied by John Fugelsang, who has made a name as a comedian, actor, political commentator, and radio host. He makes frequent appearances on television news channels, and his 2015 film, “Dream On,” won Best Documentary at the New York Independent Film Festival.
The Summer Institute will hold its third forum on July 23, where Frank Snowden will present “How Epidemics Shape Society.” Snowden is the Andrew Downey Orrick Professor Emeritus of History and History of Medicine at Yale University. “He’s going to talk about how a pandemic exposes the faultlines of a society. It’s his life’s work, studying these epidemics,” Eckman said.
On July 30, the Summer Institute will host Eric K. Ward, the executive director of Western States Center. Ward specializes in topics related to civil rights, including the relationship between hate, violence, and democratic institutions. With his expertise in anti-Semitism and white nationalism as impactors of today, Ward will lead the forum, “Racism, Anti-Semitism and the Struggle for an Inclusive Democracy.”
August 6 brings the forum, “The Post-COVID World,” led by Bret Stephens, a New York Times columnist and political analyst for MSNBC. According to Eckman, the forum’s content is subject to adjustment. “[Stephens] wanted the freedom to change his talk to fit what’s happening, so his talk will be very current,” Eckman said.
This year’s forum series will come to a close on August 13, with Mitch Landrieu’s “How Cities Will Lead: Climate Change, Resilience, and Equity.” Landrieu has served many years in government, including eight as mayor of New Orleans. Today, he leads E Pluribus Unum, an organization which addresses racial and class-based issues in the Southern U.S.
In addition to weekly forums, the Summer Institute will show three films over the course of the season. Similarly, these films will be presented virtually. For $10 each, patrons can purchase links to the films through the Summer Institute website. On the morning of each film’s showing, they will receive this link in their email.
“Those Who Remained,” which details the friendship of a young girl and a Holocaust survivor, will be offered July 19. On July 26 comes “Incitement,” a thrilling look at the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin from the killer’s point of view. The Summer Institute’s final presentation will be of “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.” This film, which follows a young Jewish girl’s escape from Germany in 1933, will be available August 2.
Although Eckman anticipates a smaller turnout at this year’s series, he considers the Summer Institute’s virtual conversion a great success. “We’re keeping relationships alive. People love [the Summer Institute], and they love each other. It’s a place for them to come together in a communal way,” Eckman said. “Shelly and I are both very pleased to be able to offer that.”
For more information on the Summer Institute and its 2020 series, visit their website at mvsummerinstitute.org.