When Abbey Weintraub strolled into Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts one recent Sunday afternoon, she did not have paintings and sculptures in mind. Weintraub, a 28-year-old Boston resident, was part of a group of three dozen or so young Jews who went to the MFA to watch and discuss a film about a Nazi leader.
Boston 3G, the group calls itself, short for “third generation after the Holocaust.’’ Its members are grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, and for nearly 2 1/2 years they have gathered monthly to compare notes about life lessons from their grandparents, and discuss ways to teach even younger generations about the Holocaust. In December the group will begin partnering with Facing History and Ourselves, an international antidiscrimination group, to bring Holocaust history and antibullying lessons to classrooms.
Boston 3G is not your typical tragedy support and awareness group. There is no gloomy atmosphere at 3G events, which have been held at cocktail bars, bookstores, and art galleries. The topic that brought them together is somber, but members say somber doesn’t mean they can’t have fun and enjoy each other’s company while talking and teaching history.
Still, for all Boston 3G’s success today - membership now tops 300, compared with fewer than a dozen in the summer of 2009 - finding the appropriate balance for events wasn’t always easy.
Five board members - including founder Stacy Seltzer, a Suffolk University law student whose grandparents survived a German concentration camp, and her husband, Matt - manage Boston 3G. All of them are younger than 35. The group is a nonprofit funded by event fees and donations.
“The whole idea was to remember, to bond, to create learning moments, and to teach people who are not 3Gs what happened,’’ Seltzer said. “Because as with other turning points in history, it’s important we don’t forget and that younger generations get it.’’
On the recent Sunday the group gathered at the MFA for a screening of “Eichmann’s End,’’ a film about the tracking in 1950s Buenos Aires of notorious Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann.
“I wanted to make this event, because I knew it would be educational,’’ Weintraub said. “But I had also wanted to visit the MFA. . . . So the atmosphere and the setting were very important too.’’
As Boston 3G has grown over the past 29 months from a handful of attendees to hundreds of members, setting and atmosphere have played a major role in the group’s growth. (3G groups have popped up in other US cities, but they are not formally connected with one another.)
In the beginning, Boston 3G struggled with low membership and a phenomenon that was plaguing similar groups around the country: “how to make the Holocaust or genocide a topic that people want to socialize around,’’ said Seltzer.
3G groups in Charlotte and Philadelphia, among others, have struggled to build membership because young Jews in those areas have been reluctant to appear upbeat when gathering around the Holocaust.
Boston 3G tried happy hours, cookouts, and formal dinners, always sticking to the mandate that every event feature a discussion or debate element about some aspect of the Holocaust and the survivor experience.
“The interesting thing was it was the least extravagant events that brought people in - events that didn’t provide a lot of ‘entertainment,’ ’’ said Elizabeth Bobrow, a 26-year-old accountant who has attended Boston 3G gatherings since summer 2009 and is now on the board. “At those events strangers talked and began to compare notes.’’
But aside from events timed to Jewish holidays, nothing caught fire for the regularly scheduled meetings, till someone suggested the group look to art.
‘It’s important we don’t forget and that younger generations get it.’Stacy Seltzer Boston 3G founder, on Holocaust
“Art is kind of a natural conversation starter, even among young people,’’ Bobrow says. “And I think the combination of our natural curiosity about art and the insights of survivors who know art made for some powerful meetings.’’
In one such meeting, attendees gathered at the Paint Bar in Newton, where groups can paint together under the tutelage of a professional and enjoy a glass of wine.
That night, Boston 3G members painted landscapes of Jerusalem while Felice Cohen, author of “What Papa Told Me,’’ a book about her father’s experience surviving the Holocaust, read aloud and engaged the crowd in discussion.
On another occasion, legendary Jewish landscape painter Samuel Bak, who survived Nazi slaughters in Vilnius, Lithuania, lectured attendees in a Back Bay art gallery.
Dan Sigel, 33, an entrepreneur and former elementary school teacher, had been attending Boston 3G meetings for the better part of two years when the Bak event took place. Sigel said for him, the Bak event helped the group define itself and perfect that balance between enjoyable and respectful.
“You could feel people just soaking up his every word, and at the same time enjoying the art and not feeling guilty about that,’’ Sigel said. “And the feelings of warmth that generated were enough that by the end, people were more comfortable talking in that casual setting about what they had in common: grandparents who survived and brought their unique experiences to raising families in this country.’’
Experts say Boston 3G growing pains are common but that the group handled it exceptionally well, all things considered.
Terry Lyles, a Miami psychologist who specializes in the after-effects of mass trauma, compares the situation to a wake. “No one would question that it’s . . . a somber matter,’’ he said. “So invite people to gather socially around the memory of the deceased and people are going to be naturally cautious about just how ‘social’ they should be.’’
Paulette Kouffman Sherman, a New York psychologist and relationship expert who is a descendant of Holocaust survivors, said groups like 3G could be game changers in terms of giving younger generations a fresh perspective of Holocaust history and inspiring younger people to spread the word.
Kouffman Sherman said her research has shown that younger generations of Jews are so immersed in popular culture they are simply more fun-loving than their elders and therefore better equipped emotionally to take a heavy topic like the Holocaust and make it palatable for their peers.
Maurice Vanderpol, 90, a retired Harvard professor and psychoanalyst for McLean Hospital, lectures high school students in the Boston area about his harrowing tale of Holocaust survival in the Netherlands, from ages 14 to 16.
Vanderpol, who knows of Boston 3G but is not formally involved in the group, caps off each somber lecture - when he’s inevitably asked by a teen what was the first thing he and his friends did once they learned they could safely come out of hiding - by telling the youths, “We laughed and got drunk!’’
“It is important that young people understand that being social is a good thing. It is how we share our pasts with one another and make those pasts understandable,’’ Vanderpol says. “Then it becomes educational.’’James H. Burnett III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.twitter.com/jamesburnett.