Vilna Synagogue Is Rare Gem in Tony Boston Neighborhood

1919 Shul Eagerly Awaits Its Restoration

It Takes a Vilna: Boston’s Vilna Shul, designed in 1919, features an unusual number of skylights.
Menachem Wecker
It Takes a Vilna: Boston’s Vilna Shul, designed in 1919, features an unusual number of skylights.

By Menachem Wecker

Published February 10, 2014, issue of February 14, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

The 10-minute walk from Boston’s Charles/MGH Red Line stop to the Vilna Shul meanders along narrow tree-lined streets with picturesque streetlamps and houses in the ritzy Beacon Hill neighborhood.

It’s easy to walk right past the synagogue, which is set back from Phillips Street behind a fence with a Star of David, as one hurries along to Freedom Trail stops, such as the African Meeting House (later a synagogue), the John Coburn House, and the Lewis and Harriet Hayden House. But however uneventful and unpretentious the synagogue’s façade is, its interior is well worth a careful look.

“I find that many of my Boston friends — of whatever religion — have not heard of Vilna, or even if they have, have never visited,” says Samuel Gruber, a cultural heritage consultant, scholar and frequent blogger on Jewish art and architecture. “Nationally, the Vilna Shul has never gotten the type of media exposure of Touro Synagogue in Newport, Eldridge Street Synagogue in New York, or even of Wright’s Beth Sholom in Elkins Park, Pa.” (Having grown up in Boston, I’m ashamed to admit I wasn’t familiar with the Vilna Shul either until Gruber and Barnet Kessel, the synagogue’s executive director, gave me a tour.)

The last time Gruber, who is author of the 2003 book “American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and the Jewish Community,” saw a mention of the shul in the New York Times was in Gustav Niebuhr’s 1996 article “Bit of Boston’s Jewish Pride Is Revived,” and he has seen only “passing references” in national Jewish media. “Those three historic and architectural landmarks are now iconic and suck up most of the oxygen in discussions of American synagogue architecture — even among Jews,” he says.

The synagogue, whose name derives from the immigrants from present-day Vilnius, Lithuania, who founded it, and was designed in 1919 by Jewish architect Max Kalman, has several noteworthy features. The central arrangement of the bimah, the podium upon which the Torah is read, is a tradition with which most American Jews are unfamiliar, Gruber says.

The synagogue features an unusual number of skylights. ‘Light is both symbolic and practical, especially when it falls on the Torah on the bimah when it is publicly read,’ Gruber notes. It includes a second-floor sanctuary with a women’s section whose floor slopes down from the back wall — which is decorated with illustrations of Rachel’s tomb and the Cave of Machpelah — to meet the men’s section.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • "The first time I met Mick Jagger, I said, 'Those are the tackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.'” Jewish music journalist Lisa Robinson remembers the glory days of rock in her new book, "There Goes Gravity."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.