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

(page 2 of 2)

Gruber thinks the topography of the land dictated the synagogue’s layout, although he says he isn’t sure why a third level for the women’s gallery wasn’t constructed. “Would the cost of stronger foundations or walls have been too much?” he wonders. “I doubt there were local height limits.”

Kessel, the shul’s executive director, also isn’t sure why the women’s section is on a slant. “The slope of Beacon Hill is up from the front door to the back of the building,” he says, “so we can’t use the elevation of the hill as a reason.” Research has shown that there is earth underneath the women’s section, so perhaps its structure was dictated by cost, convenience, construction technology, or existing landscape conditions, Kessel says.

What is clear is that the building, which stopped functioning fully as a place for prayer in 1985, has been divisive. As Rachel Gross, doctoral candidate at Princeton University, explained in a December 17, 2013 talk titled “Ghosts in the Gallery: Nostalgia and Authenticity in Historic Synagogues Used as Heritage Sites” at the Association for Jewish Studies’ annual conference in Boston, the synagogue’s 87-year-old president Mendel Miller was mugged while setting up for High Holiday services in 1985. At the time, membership at the Vilna Shul was only three people.

“The attack cemented Miller’s reasonable decision to disband the congregation, sell the building, and give the proceeds to charity,” Gross said in her talk. Communal leaders in Boston, who hadn’t raised a finger to try to help the struggling synagogue until they realized they would benefit financially from the sale, rushed to block the sale, Gross explained. The president of the Charles River Park Synagogue, Allan Green, told the New York Times in 1989, “We feel that designating this shell of a building [as a monument] is really to no fruitful purpose.”

“In his [Green’s] view, [echoing] the common critique that museums and heritage sites serve only as markers of historical respect and do not serve the needs of the present,” Gross said.

Those supporting the synagogue’s preservation won out, and today, staff at the shul are working on plans to restore both the building and its artwork to its 1919 state, according to Kessel. Although the building was updated during its first seven decades of existence, it underwent significant restoration in 1989 (when it was nearly a condemned building) and in 2000, when the murals on the back wall of the women’s section were restored.

“The building represents the last immigrant-era synagogue left in the city of Boston out of more than 50. All but ours have been lost to disaster, re-purposing, and/or urban renewal,” Kessel says. The Vilna Shul, whose full name today includes the subheading “Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture,” functions currently as a cultural and educational center, a historical landmark, and a museum.

It’s hard to shake the feeling of sadness that comes from seeing objects that were created to be used in a religious context retired from use in a synagogue-turned-museum, but there really are some treasures in the Vilna Shul collection, including the wall and ceiling illustrations, old Yiddish posters (such as one for the ladies auxiliary), well-used lecterns, and an old sign advertising prayer times (daily services were then held at 6:30 a.m.). The sanctuary also features a bar in front of the ark, which may have designated a space for mourners to congregate when they recited Kaddish for loved ones’ yahrzeits.

Perhaps most noteworthy is the ark, which is beautifully adorned with sculpted lions, an eagle, a crown, and two hands configured in the priestly blessing popularized by Star Trek’s Spock. The ark features stunning wood carvings on its doors and on the columns surrounding those doors. Kessel parted the curtains for a moment to reveal illustrations of clam shells, which however unkosher and however much of a chutzpah they are in a synagogue, are undeniably a nice New England touch.

Menachem Wecker is a freelance writer in Chicago and former education reporter at U.S. News & World Report.


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!
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • 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.