History the Vilna Shul

Eastern European Jewish immigrants arrived in the city of Boston in large numbers beginning in the 1880’s. 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 End and West End of Boston, where cheaper housing was available. There Jews often formed landsmanschaften –organizations of re-settled people originally from the same area or town 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 included the steeper north slope of Beacon Hill and the old West End. At the turn of the 20th century, there were 40 synagogues in this area. The Vilna is the last-remaining synagogue building from this era.

This was the case for a group of Jewish immigrants from Vilna Gubernia – the province encompassing the present-day city of Vilnius, Lithuania - who formed their 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. They called themselves Anshei Vilner or “the People of Vilnius. As their membership increased and they formed a traditional Jewish congregation, they needed a permanent synagogue.

Meanwhile, 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 next door.

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. Over time, three distinct layers of murals with different color schemes adorned the walls of the Vilna Shul. Later, the murals were completely covered with beige paint. Recently, small remnants of each layer have been painstakingly uncovered by expert art conservationists; they are some of the only remaining examples of pre-war Jewish mural art in the United States

For 65 years, the congregation prayed at 18 Phillips Street, but by 1950 life had rapidly changed in the West End. The city destroyed two thirds of the West End in an urban renewal project, leaving the Vilna as one of the only synagogues in the area. This project was devastating to the Jewish community in the West End.

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. The building sat idle until 1994, when it was rescued and made inhabitable.

This historic synagogue, nearly 100 years old, is now known as the Vilna Shul/Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture, and is full of activity once 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. 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.

As we breathe new life into the Vilna, we are ensuring the continuity of our people by welcoming all those who are seeking community and a way to live meaningful lives based on Jewish values and cultural connections. 

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