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Vilna Shul (Boston, Mass.) Records

 Collection
Identifier: I-598

Scope and Content Note

This collection contains correspondence, meeting minutes, reports, proposals, photographs, notes, publications, financial records, legal documents, architectural plans, and audiovisual materials relating to the activities, internal proceedings, finances, early history, building renovations, and legal disputes of the Vilna Shul. Some folders are restricted.

Dates

  • undated, 1904-2014

Creator

Language of Materials

The collection is in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew.

Access Restrictions

This collection is open for researcher use. Please contact us to request access or to make an appointment to view this collection at jhcreference@nehgs.org.

Use Restrictions

There may be some restrictions on the use of this collection. For more information contact jhcreference@nehgs.org.

Historical Note

In 1893, immigrants from Vilnius, Lithuania began to meet informally at the corner of Cotting and Lowell Streets in Boston’s West End. There they formed a landsmanshaft, a benevolent society formed by people from the same town or region in Europe to assist in mutual and hometown aid and to provide social networks and support for those arriving in America.

A congregation, Anshe Vilna, was formally founded in 1898, and in 1903, it was incorpoated as the the Vilner Congregation (also called the Wilner Congregation), a Massachusetts charitable corporation. During this time, the synagogue operated out of members’ apartments and houses. To meet the needs of its growing membership, the congregation purchased the former Twelfth Baptist Church at 45 Phillips Street in 1906, dedicated the building on September 9, 1906. In 1915 the City of Boston bought the building from the Vilner Congregation for the expansion of the neighboring Wendell Phillips School. From 1915 to 1919 the congregation operated out of 27 Anderson Street.

In 1919 the congregation purchased the property at 14-18 Phillips Street from the heirs of Joshua Bennett. The existing buildings on the L-shaped plot were demolished, and Max M. Kalman, a local architect and attorney, designed the new building. On December 11, 1919 the cornerstone was laid by congregation president Edward B. Lunn. The design incorporated rundbogenstil elements, seen in the large Star of David stained glass window, as well as arched doors and windows.

During Boston’s urban renewal project in the 1950s to early 1960s, the West End was demolished and replaced with residential high rises and government and commercial buildings. The Vilna Shul was located just outside the demolition area, but by the 1970s the decline in membership and attendance as a result of the urban renewal project led to the discontinuation of daily services.

The final service was held by the congregation’s last remaining member, Mendel Miller, in 1985. He then petitioned to dissolve the congregation and give all proceeds of the sale to the State of Israel. In 1986, former worshippers attempted to intervene and be declared members to halt the dissolution. Charles River Park Synagogue (now The Boston Synagogue) also made attempts to claim the Vilna Shul’s assets under the cy pres doctrine; they argued that under cy pres, state-held dissolution profits of a non-profit should go to the nearest similar institution—in this case a synagogue. Attorney Terry Jean Seligman was appointed as Temporary Receiver by Justice Ruth Abrams to manage the shul's assets, sell them at fair market value, and settle the congregation's debts.

In 1989 a petition was filed with the Boston Landmarks Commission to designate the Vilna Shul a Boston landmark. After initial approval from the Commission and Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn, the landmark proceeding was terminated in 1991 amidst concerns that the status could affect the building's market value. In 1990, the Vilna Center for Jewish Heritage was officially incorporated. The Center hoped to raise the necessary funds to purchase the Vilna Shul, restore the building, and create an endowment by actively fundraising and applying for numerous grant programs.

Also during this time there was an ongoing dispute over the ownership of one of the shul's torah scrolls, the Ladies Auxiliary torah, which had been given to Rabbi Abraham Halbfinger for safekeeping by the Receiver during the congregation's legal disputes. Halbfinger later submitted evidence that the torah had been given to and was now owned by his congregation, Kadimah-Toras Moshe; his claim was denied by the courts. In 1994 a Purchase and Sale Agreement was signed and in 1995 the Vilna Center for Jewish Heritage acquired the Vilna Shul. In 2000 the Boston Synagogue became the 100 percent cy pres recipient (therefore recieving the funds from the sale of the Vilna Shul to the Vilna Center for Jewish Heritage), and much of Vilna’s legal proceedings came to a close when the Ladies Auxiliary torah was returned; the event was marked by a gala in 2006. The Vilner Congregation was formally dissolved on April 12, 2001.

Today the Vilna Shul is the last immigrant-era synagogue building in Boston. It operates as a cultural center that celebrates Jewish culture and its intersection with other cultures.

References

  1. The Vilna Shul. “Our History.” Accessed November 2, 2017. http://vilnashul.org/about/our_history.
  2. Weingarten, Michael. Preservation, Intrigue and Property: Dissolving Boston's Vilna Shul Congregation, 1985-2001. Boston: The Boston Synagogue, 2015.

Chronology

1893
Jewish immigrants from Vilnius, Lithuania form a landsmanshaft and meet informally at the corner of Cotting and Lowell Streets in Boston's West End.
1898
Anshe Vilna is founded.
1903
Anshe Vilna is incorporated as the Vilner Congregation, a Massachusetts charitable corporation, and begins to hold worship services.
1906
The congregation purchases the former Twelfth Baptist Church at 45 Phillips Street.
September 9, 1906
The building is dedicated.
1915
The City of Boston purchases the building at 45 Phillips Street to be used as a school.
1915-1919
The congregation operates out of 27 Anderson Street
1919
Vilner Congregation purchases property on 14-18 Phillips Street.
circa 1919
Anshei Sfard merges with Vilna Shul.
December 11, 1919
The cornerstone is laid at 18 Phillips Street by president Edward B. Lunn.
1920
Construction of the Vilna Shul is completed.
1950s
The West End's urban renewal project begins.
circa 1958
Beth Hackneseth Tiferes Israel merges with Vilna Shul.
1970s
Daily services are discontinued.
1985
Vilna's final service is held by its last remaining member, Mendel Miller, who then petitions the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to dissolve the congregation with all proceeds from the sale of the synagogue's assets going to Israel; Justice Ruth Abrams is assigned the case.
1986-1987
Former worshippers attempt to intervene in the dissolution and be declared members of the congregation. Charles River Park Synagogue also attempts to claim the Vilna Shul's assets under the cy pres doctrine.
December 1988
Attorney Terry Jean Seligman is appointed as Temporary Receiver by Justice Abrams to manage the Shul's assets, sell them at fair market value, and settle the congregation's debts.
January 1989
A petition is filed with the Boston Landmarks Commission to designate the second floor sanctuary as a Boston landmark; the petition is accepted and a feasibilty study on the preservation of the shul is written for Historic Boston Inc., a nonprofit that supports the preservation of historic buildings.
1989
Vilna's torahs are given to the Receiever, who then gives them to Rabbi Abraham Halbfinger for safekeeping.
November 1989
The Boston Landmarks Commission holds a hearing on the proposed designation with testimonies for and against it.
December 1989
Landmark status is approved by the Boston Landmarks Commission.
January 1990
Mayor Raymond Flynn approves the designation, but the City Council overturns it by one vote. The Boston Landmarks Commission votes to reconsider the designation.
December 1990
The nonprofit Vilna Center for Jewish Heritage is incorporated and fundraising begins to raise funds to buy the Vilna Shul, restore the building, and create an endowment.
August 1991
The Boston Landmarks Commission agrees to terminate the landmark proceeding for the interior after an initial sale and purchase agreement had not been performed.
1994
A Purchase and Sale Agreement is signed.
1995
Vilna Center for Jewish Heritage acquires the Vilna Shul.
1998
Rabbi Halbfinger retains one of the shul's torah scrolls.
2000
The Boston Synagogue becomes the 100 percent cy pres recipient.
April 2001
Vilner Congregation is formally dissolved.
2006
The Vilna Center for Jewish Heritage holds a gala celebrating the return of all seven of its torahs.

Extent

23.1 linear feet (18 document boxes, 2 OS boxes)

Abstract

The Vilna Shul is the last immigrant-era synagogue building in Boston and currently operates as a cultural center. This collection contains correspondence, meeting minutes, reports, proposals, photographs, notes, publications, financial records, legal documents, architectural plans, and audiovisual materials relating to the activities, internal proceedings, finances, early history, building renovations, and legal disputes of the Vilna Shul.

Physical Location

Located in Boston, Mass.

Acquisition Information

Donated by Barnet Kessel, 2016.

Processing Information

Processed by Kelsey Sawyer and Ola Canty, 2017
Title
Guide to the Vilna Shul (Boston, Mass.) Records, I-598
Author
Processed by Kelsey Sawyer and Ola Canty
Date
2017

Repository Details

Part of the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center at New England Historic Genealogical Society Repository

Contact:
99-101 Newbury Street
Boston MA 02116 United States
617-226-1245