A Conversation With Leslie Maitland — The Longtime Coordinator of WHC’s Amram Scholar Series

In 1998, when Rabbi Joseph Weinberg of beloved memory learned of congregant Leslie Maitland’s educational and professional background—as both an alumna of the Harvard Divinity School and a former reporter for The New York Times—he enlisted her to help run the Amram Scholar Series. That request would soon become a major and enduring focus for her.

For the next 23 years, until stepping aside last summer, Maitland wholeheartedly embraced the mission of sustaining a top-quality annual lecture series—an objective that ultimately involved her arranging and helping to publicize and moderate hundreds of speakers and events. To honor her volunteer service, one Amram lecture each year will now bear her name. The first is set for Sunday, April 24 at 10:30 am at Temple with James McAuley, author of The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France.

In working closely with Rabbi Lustig to maintain the series, which was founded in 1963 with an endowment from the estate of Adolf Amram and donations from Temple families, Maitland says it was important to her to preserve the vision of its founders, with three basic guidelines: “Our focus remained non-fiction, with all speakers recognized as respected authorities on their varied subjects. Every lecture included some Jewish aspect or insight. And we kept events free and open to the public, which meant many enthusiastic followers from the broader community joined our Amram audiences.” 

They filled Kaufmann Sanctuary to hear luminaries such as Elie Wiesel, Amos Oz, Susan Sontag, Madeleine Albright, Thomas Friedman, and Samantha Power. Whirling Dervishes spun across our sanctuary’s stage. And in a festive program that Maitland regards as an all-time favorite, the University of Chicago’s New Budapest Orpheum Society turned our social hall into a candle-lit, Weimar-era cabaret, with a live performance of songs by Kurt Weill and his European Jewish contemporaries. To be sure, a lecture on their music was part of the program.

A longtime member of the WHC board and executive committee, Maitland was mindful of finances. With speakers’ demands for honoraria and stresses on Temple dollars soaring through the years, she used her contacts and negotiating skills to stretch the Amram budget. From the start, she eliminated our reliance on high-priced speakers’ bureaus, and in 2014 she enrolled the congregation as a participating site for the Jewish Book Council (JBC), greatly enlarging our pool of potential speakers. Maitland had encountered the JBC two years earlier as a touring author, with the publication of her non-fiction book, Crossing the Borders of Time: A True Story of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed, on which she spoke in the Amram Scholar Series and at venues across the country. 

For the first Leslie Maitland Lecture, Maitland says she chose The House of Fragile Things because its topic of French antisemitism hits home to her. As described in her book, four French members of her family, three of them children, were denounced to the Nazis by neighbors in Lyon in 1943 and killed at Auschwitz. They numbered among more than 75,000 Jews deported from France who perished in the Holocaust. 

Looking to the future of the Amram Scholar Series, Maitland says she hopes that more and younger members of the congregation will come to appreciate the pleasure, intellectually and socially, of gathering to hear stimulating speakers on thought-provoking topics. 

“I confess, on occasional Sunday mornings I might have groaned about having to get up and rush to Temple,” she reflects, “but I always came home exhilarated by those I’d met and what I’d learned.”

Following this year’s lecture, we invite you to join us for a bagel brunch and toast in honor of Leslie.

This event hosted by WHC’s EmptyNesters is free and open to everyone.

Learn more about the lecture and RSVP.


This year’s Leslie Maitland Amram Scholar Series Lecture is presented in partnership with the Jewish Book Council.