History the Vilna Shul
Eastern European Jewish immigrants arrived to the city of Boston in large numbers beginning in the 1880s. With little or no income, they looked to rebuild their old communities anew in the United States. Many Jews decided to settle in crowded, undesirable tenement neighborhoods like the North and West Ends of Boston where cheaper housing was available. There Jews often formed a landsmanschaft – an organization of re-settled people originally from the same area in Europe.
Many people do not realize that just blocks away from the homes of some of Boston’s wealthiest residents are the former tenements of some of its poorest. Once deemed an undesirable neighborhood, Jewish immigrants lived, worked and prayed throughout this neighborhood that once included the north slope of Beacon Hill and the old West End.
This was the case for a group of Jewish immigrants from Vilna Guberniya – the county outside of present-day Vilnius, Lithuania - who formed a landsmanschaft in 1893 on the north slope of Beacon Hill in Boston's West End. They prayed together, gathering a minyan – ten men needed to hold a complete Jewish prayer service – in the homes of their members. As their membership increased and they formed a traditional Jewish congregation, they needed a permanent synagogue. They called themselves Anshei Vilner or “the People of Vilnius" and sought a new home for their group.
As the number of immigrants moving to Beacon Hill increased and landowners built tenements to house them, the 150 year-old African American community living there began to move away. Buildings emerged on the market and in 1909, Anshei Vilner purchased the former 12th Baptist Church (est. 1848) at 45 Phillips Street and turned it into their synagogue. After ten years of worship at 45 Phillips Street, the city of Boston purchased the synagogue from Anshei Vilner for $20,000 and demolished the building to make way for the expansion of the Wendell Phillips School.
On December 11, 1919, Anshei Vilner laid the cornerstone for its new building at 18 Phillips Street. The congregation employed the only Jewish architect in the city, Max Kalman, and young men in the community helped with the construction. Vilner congregants painted the walls and ceiling of their new synagogue with decorative murals, a long-standing tradition of Eastern European Jews. Three distinct sets of murals covered the walls of the Vilna Shul, although these paintings were later covered over with beige paint. Today they are some of the only examples of pre-war Jewish mural art in the United States.
A Lithuanian Jewish immigrant congregation that called itself Anshei Vilner, placed the cornerstone for a little synagogue at 18 Phillips Street on Beacon Hill in 1919. Although the last member of Anshei Vilner Congregation left the building in 1985, the synagogue, better known as the Vilna Shul, is full of activity again. The Vilna is now a destination and a place of learning for anyone interested in Jewish history, culture and spirituality. It is a must-see historic site for visitors to Boston and a unique community venue for concerts, speakers, films and Jewish life cycle events.
For 65 years, the congregation prayed at 18 Phillips Street, but in 1950 life rapidly changed in the West End. The city destroyed the West End in an urban renew project, leaving places like the Vilna as one of the only synagogues in the area. As most of the Jewish community had long since left Beacon Hill for more desirable neighborhoods and open space, the Vilner became a synagogue for those "left" on the Hill. The last remaining member of Anshei Vilner, Mendel Miller, held a Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) service in the synagogue for the last time in 1985.
Today the Shul is a little different. We are a cultural center, a place where the history of Boston's Jews can be shared and enjoyed by everyone and where Boston Jewish life thrives once again.