Categories: Boston

The Vilna Shul : Beacon Hill – Boston

Much like the Eldrige Street Synagogue Museum in NYC’s China Town Boston too has its Jewish heritage with a history of Jewish immigrants settling in first with the low budget neighborhoods of Boston and then slowly migrating out as the population turns wealthier.

Beacon Hill was once a crowded immigrant neighborhood, and so this is the place to learn a bit about that part of history. Very much like the Eldrige synagogue, I ran into the Vilna Shul by accident, seeing a mention of a museum that might be open nearby while navigating with Google Maps.

And I’m very glad that I did…


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Beacon Hill - The Vilna Shul - Boston (1)

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As you can see the place is still up, and now hosts a community with a museum downstairs and a person onsite offering tour-guide services. Taking me around I got to hear all the details about the community that once was, the synagogue and the current prosperous Boston Jewish community.


The Vilna Shul official website offers an introduction :

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. […]

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.

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.


The synagogue has recently been renovated but funds are short and there’s always a need for repairs. Let’s go in, lots to see inside …


The ground floor is the museum, with exhibits about the old and current Jewish communities of Boston.

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Upstairs is the main synagogue prayer hall. Nothing fancy, remember this was a poor immigrant community, but still…


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Beacon Hill - The Vilna Shul - Boston (10)

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Though the letters are Hebrew, you might recognize that everything is written in Yiddish, with Hebrish and Yiglish examples below ("Ladies Auxiliary Vilna Congregation" referring to the ladies of the community, if you can make it out) …


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There’s also a bit of Jewish art here and there, like this piece – "Minyan" (10 people required to form a joint prayer)…


If you’re interested in Jewish history and are touring Beacon Hill, stop in for a visit. If you can, find the enthusiastic tour-guide on grounds. There are endless stories to this old community and synagogue.

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