I first visited the Vilna in 2011 and was immediately taken by the history within its walls. The Vilner Congregation was founded in 1893 by immigrants from Vilna, Lithuania, and they finally built their own building in 1919. In the early 1900’s, it was one of 42 synagogues in the West End of Boston; now it is the only remaining immigrant-era synagogue building remaining in downtown Boston, and in fact, its only Jewish historic site . As the Jews prospered and moved out, the congregation dwindled, and in the 1980’s the building closed. In 1994, a group of philanthropists saved the building from the wrecking ball. The Vilna staff, board, and volunteers are transforming this nationally important building into a thriving community and cultural center for people of all ages. In 2018 we hit the $4 million mark and were able to begin, and one year later complete, our Phase 1 restoration. This renovation included making the building accessible to all with a lift to bring people up to the historic sanctuary. We dug out millions of cubic feet of dirt under the Women’s Gallery, and added 1000 cubic feet of office space, which includes our Curious George classroom and two accessible bathrooms. We also gutted and completely renovated the downstairs community room, historic kitchen, new daily entrance, and accessible ramp leading to the new entrance. We updated all the systems in the building as well.
In 2024, we are moving into Phase II of our Capital Campaign. We will be finishing the restoration of the historic sanctuary, and will conserve what’s left of the only Jewish folk art murals in North America. We will be restoring the floors, ceiling, central bima and double staircase.
Our dreams of having a completely restored building are coming true, not just to fix the building in and of itself, but in order to have the building serve as a hub of engagement for the whole community. It’s all about Jewish engagement for cultural Jews and others who want to learn and engage with others in a cultural way.
I am proud to be the immediate past president of the Board of Directors and currently serve as the chair of the Development Committee. ( I took the helm just as COVID hit!) We emerged from the worst of the pandemic with more constituents than ever as we pivoted and created our Virtual Vilna programs. Thousands of people from all over the world joined us on line for quality programs. Our organization emerged stronger than before. I look forward to growing our organization to serve more program participants, tourists, and Bostonians of all ages who want to feel as if they are a part of something bigger than themselves. In these difficult times, it has never been more important to have a strong Jewish presence in Boston.
Go to www.vilnashul.org to learn more!