BOSTON — However many times people paint over history, future generations endeavor to uncover what came first.
Such has been the case at Boston’s Vilna Shul, also known as the Vilna, where a focus on renewal — both Jewish and architectural — transformed a structure once destined for the wrecking ball into the city’s only historic site with an ongoing Jewish connection.
The modest, two-story brick edifice was built in 1919, down the street from the Twelfth Baptist Church, site of the Vilna’s first, short-lived home on Beacon Hill. The church’s original benches — once filled with former slaves and veterans of the legendary 54th Regiment, depicted in the film “Glory” — were purchased by the Vilna a century ago, and are still used today. In the first of many on-site makeovers, the horizontal sections of crosses carved onto the pews’ sides were removed by the Yiddish-speaking founders.
More recently, murals depicting the Promised Land created during the 1920s have been uncovered and restored since 2009. Until the excavation of murals and a slew of art deco flourishes throughout the building, almost nothing was known about how far the Vilna’s pogrom-fleeing founders — poor immigrants to the cramped West End neighborhood — had gone to decorate their synagogue in the familiar, vibrant style of Eastern European shuls.
Thirty years ago, in what seemed to be a prudent business decision, these murals and the entire Vilna Shul were almost destroyed.
With just one member remaining by 1985, the Vilna was set to face the wrecking ball and yet another transformation — into a parking lot. Through a last-minute rescue, orchestrated by the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts, the condemned building was repurposed in 1995 as Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture, and is again the scene of Jewish renewal.
Determined to provide new links to the one-of-a-kind structure’s Jewish past, the center applied for grants to expose images existing beneath layers of paint in the sanctuary. At the time of the building’s rescue 20 years ago, no one imagined the extent or intricacy of the images to be uncovered by researchers.
The first discovery came in 2009, when murals created in 1923 depicting Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem and the Cave of the Machpelah in Hebron were uncovered in the women’s gallery. Later excavations on walls, columns, and ceilings throughout the building yielded art deco-like elements in pastel colors, along with Jewish symbols like the Star of David.
Extrapolating from these recovered, fragmentary images, the Vilna’s interior looked something like a Cecil B. DeMille movie set, with a little bit of Dr. Seuss tossed in.
What advocates of demolishing the Vilna Shul once called “an empty shell of a building,” turned out to have immense historical value. With the destruction of almost all Eastern European synagogues during the Holocaust, the Vilna’s recovered pre-war murals are a rare link to that lost genre of shul interiors.
“The story of this building is a form of Zionism,” said Barnet Kessel, the center’s executive director. “Here we have a space that has been Jewish for a century, and that was almost lost. Now it is being nurtured by new generations of Jews,” he said in an interview with The Times of Israel.
Before joining the Vilna, Kessel was a vice president at his family’s manufacturing business. The metal bed frame factory once operated around the corner from the Vilna, close to today’s Black Heritage Trail.
“The Vilna is the only active Jewish historical site in all of the city of Boston,” said Kessel, noting there were 54 Boston synagogues serving immigrant Jews in 1920, of which only the Vilna survives.
As the head of Boston’s oldest shul — that is not actually a shul — Kessel faces the challenge of engaging a suburb-based Jewish community. Even with its downtown location, the Vilna is not close to the venerable Freedom Trail, which runs adjacent to the tourist-packed New England Holocaust Memorial and historic Faneuil Hall.
According to Kessel, the Vilna receives a stream of tourists “from Kansas to Kiev” throughout the year. One Friday evening a month, young adults and neighborhood veterans hold a rousing Shabbat service — egalitarian and non-denominational — led by the group Havurah on the Hill, which also conducts high holiday services at the Vilna.
To engage Jewish young adults in a space far from their residences, Havurah brings in prominent speakers and pairs services with activities such as Israeli wine tasting. Since its creation in 2001, the group has become known for deepening Jewish ritual engagement outside of synagogues.
“We are a community of young people keeping alive the Jewish traditions in an ancient space,” said Melissa Galvez, chair of Havurah. “We are also trying to make Shabbat a little more interesting for people,” she told the Times of Israel.
With synagogue affiliation rates down, the Vilna-Havurah partnership offers a no-strings alternative to traditional shul membership. As one of the only inclusive Jewish worship communities in town, Havurah helped put the Vilna back on the Jewish map as much as the murals did.
“A lot of people want a Jewish community center with a lowercase C,” said Kessel, who has served on the boards of many Boston Jewish organizations.
Acknowledging the challenge of fundraising for the Vilna, Kessel said he “spends a lot of time explaining to people that this is not a fully functioning synagogue,” he said.
To attract visitors, the center created an exhibition about its history tied to Jewish transitions — both the community’s migration from the Vilna and Boston’s city center to the early suburbs of Dorchester and Roxbury, as well as transitions in ritual introduced by the Vilna founders.
Most notably, the Vilna’s first women members were seated in a gallery running perpendicular to that of the men, and on the same level. The arrangement stood in marked contrast to members’ old country shuls, where women were seated behind a partition in an upper gallery. The Vilna’s seating arrangement might have been the result of economics or topography, but it was also a step toward today’s mixed gender seating, a mainstay in non-Orthodox synagogues.
Slightly sloped, the Vilna’s women’s gallery sits atop a sand mound that will be excavated in the near future, according to Kessel. Adjacent to the lower floor’s study hall, the emptied area will be structured to house offices and accessible restrooms, in yet another example of the Vilna adapting to change, said Kessel.
In the weeks ahead, the building’s main entrance will be restored with the reinstallation of the shul’s original, Jewish symbol-adorned wrought iron fence, currently off-site for preservation. The small entrance plaza surrounded by the fence will also be renovated.
Elsewhere throughout the building, the center’s staff of three proudly point out the shul’s various oddities, including the delicately carved and decidedly not kosher clam shells adorning the holy ark in the main sanctuary. According to Vilna lore, a golden eagle atop the ark was meant to symbolize the community’s connection to America, and the clam shells were a local nod.
Downstairs from the main sanctuary, the back of the former study hall is a trove of Vilna artifacts and nostalgia, including the original backup holy ark, carved from a member’s bedroom armoire. Behind the ark, a dilapidated, Great Depression-era mural of flowers in an urn will be restored by volunteers using mosaic tiles in August.
By the time the shul celebrates 100 years in 2020, Kessel hopes increased fundraising will allow for a complete restoration of the building, including the excavation of more murals.
“Our goal is to make the Vilna a place that is modern in comfort, but historic in atmosphere,” said Kessel. “This is a rare example of the Jewish people being able to save a building, and not just scrolls and books,” he added.
The West End’s most famous Jewish son, the late actor Leonard Nimoy, was similarly fond of the last remaining shul from his childhood neighborhood where ten synagogues once stood. In 2008, the Vilna produced a video narrated by Nimoy to highlight its rich history.
Cited as the only Boston synagogue to be listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, the shul’s interior was filmed the year before researchers uncovered the matriarchs’ murals.
Half a decade and several excavation rounds later, the clip takes on new meaning. Though it was already considered a gem by Nimoy and others, the Vilna had yet to reveal its most colorful face to history.