LENOX -- With the kids' summer camp or school plans squared away, it's time to concentrate on vacation planning for adults. While a week in the Berkshires offers the familiar cultural and recreational attractions -- Tanglewood, Jacob's Pillow -- two prestigious educational institutions have set up programs for adults offering rigorous learning experiences amid the region's natural beauty and cultural bounty.
Brandeis in the Berkshires offers intellectual engagement in political, sociological, and academic discourse, and New York's School of Visual Arts Summer Institute in the Berkshires provides intensive professional instruction for artists in various media.
Since 2002, Brandeis faculty and guests from around the world have gathered here to grapple with issues such as the pursuit of peace in the Middle East, the status of contemporary Jewish life in America, and the coexistence of business principles and profits in the age of globalization. The program sprang from the experiences of Jehuda Reinharz, president of Brandeis, and Harold Grinspoon, a real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist, who had both attended the Aspen Institute and decided to create a similar forum of intellectual inquiry and open-ended dialogue in the Northeast.
Last July, as Israel stood poised to turn over control of Gaza to the Palestinians, participants in the summer's first weeklong session, or ''institute," convened to thrash out a timely topic: ''Patterns and Paradoxes: Challenges of an Emerging State." Among the institute's fellows were a member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament; Israel's first female member of a local religious council; and the first Bedouin woman in Israel to attend college, Amal Elsana-Alh'jooj who serves as director of the Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation, a division of the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development.
Moderating the institute were alumnus S. Ilan Troen, who splits his time between Brandeis (as the Stoll Family Chair in Israel Studies) and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (where he is Lopin Professor of Modern History); and Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former director-general of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Avineri also delivered the institute's keynote address, ''The Israeli Political System on the Threshold of Crucial Decisions."
These civic and academic leaders joined more than a dozen intellectually engaged participants at Cranwell Resort, Spa and Golf Club in a whirlwind of discussion and debate. The week unfolded over two 90-minute sessions in a conference room every morning, each addressing specific topics. Participants came prepared, with their dauntingly thick packet of required and recommended readings spread open on the conference table, often heavily highlighted. Moderators kicked off each session and kept order, calling on those eager to jump into the discussion and cooling things down when viewpoints clashed and emotions flared over contentious issues, such as secular-religious tensions, Jewish-Arab relations, and gender issues among both Jewish and Arab women.
Reading material included Shakespeare's ''The Taming of the Shrew" and participants attended a staging of the play at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox. On a box-lunch field trip, Tina Packer, the theater company's artistic director, who has been involved with Brandeis in the Berkshires since its inception, led a discussion likening Petruccio's subjugation of Katherine to the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians and exploring Shakespeare's empathy for society's underdogs.
Brandeis in the Berkshires features other cultural field trips, including evenings at Tanglewood and Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival plus an optional afternoon at a local museum or historic home. Most afternoons left participants free to enjoy Cranwell's recreational amenities including tennis courts and instruction, golf, spa and fitness center, and a heated pool in a light-filled atrium. Participant Sue Shapiro, a Brandeis alumna and former lawyer with the Department of Justice, spent some of her free time giving swimming lessons to ElSana-Alh'jooj, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who grew up with 11 siblings and worked as a shepherd when she was young.
Just over the Massachusetts border, on the Darrow School campus in New Lebanon, N.Y., another group of adult students grappled with different issues. Instead of facing off in conference rooms and meeting halls, they faced easels, trying to depict the rolling fields and hills spread out before them. The sole faculty member during this late-July week in the Berkshires was painter and printmaker Lisbeth Firman, whose reputation as an artist, combined with the opportunity to spend a week in the countryside doing nothing but paint, attracted five students to the School of Visual Arts' maiden summer institute.
Students roomed in the school's Shaker dormitories, sleeping in simple quarters, and sharing communal bathrooms. Staying on campus made it easier to paint late into the night and commune with their classmates and teacher, sometimes in front of a campfire when the working day was through, participants said. The school's swimming pool and tennis courts were available to them, and arrangements for horseback riding had been made at a nearby stable. But the students largely ignored recreational options, preferring to spend long hours at Darrow's new, 12,000-square-foot Joline Arts Center, a modern, light-filled visual arts facility with lots of studio and gallery space.
Firman encouraged her students to experiment with various techniques as they painted still lifes, nudes, and the glorious landscape. The program also included field trips. During a tour of the Ferrin Gallery in Lenox, owner Leslie Ferrin answered questions, many of which concerned how she selects the artists she represents. With a menu of cultural options available, the painters elected to stay on campus, immersing themselves in their work. Chance Browne of Wilton, Conn., who inherited responsibilities for the daily comic strips ''Hagar the Horrible" and ''Hi and Lois" from his father, spent his first nights away from home and family in over 18 years at the program. ''This is the single best thing I've done in my adult life," he said.
The session culminated in the art center's gallery with a show called ''Wet Paint," since some of the canvases on exhibit had only recently come off the easel. At the reception, participants mingled with family members, their model (clothed for the occasion), and administrators from the School of Visual Arts and Darrow. Jane Feldman, a professional photographer who attended both Darrow and SVA and dreamed up the collaboration between the two, chronicled the event on camera.
Both programs have enhanced their offerings for this summer. Along with a three-day institute on democracy in the Middle East and a five-day session on America's Jewish Renaissance, Brandeis is introducing a new weekend program at Cranwell, a two-day public symposium on ''Crises and Change in the Middle East," featuring the university's Crown Center for Middle East Studies and international scholars and policy leaders. Alyson Saykin, associate director of Brandeis in the Berkshires, expects 60 to 100 people to attend.
At the Darrow School, the School of Visual Arts institute has grown from two weeklong sessions to three (all in July) with several courses by prominent artists in different media each week. Participants may take the classes for undergraduate credit, with lower tuition for noncredit students.
Contact Bess Hochstein, a freelance writer in Lee, at email@example.com.