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.