City Councilor Kenzie Bok took a tour of The Vilna Shul on Aug. 11 to see for herself the extensive renovation completed at the Jewish cultural center on Phillips Street just before the pandemic struck.
Councilor Bok, along with her office’s constituent services director, Kennedy Avery, and several summer fellows, visited The Vilna Shul – the last immigrant-era synagogue building remaining in Downtown Boston – after it received funding through the first round of grants for the city’s Community Preservation Act. And since Councilor Bok was deeply involved in the passage of the CPA, she said she wanted to stop by some of the places that received funding through the program.
The Vilna Shul had completed a major renovation in February of 2020, just before COVID struck, which has transformed the downstairs into what Councilor Bok describes as an ADA-accessible “modern meeting and gathering space,” while the entire building is now equipped with a climate control system, as well as a new, state-of-the-art sound system.
“In a neighborhood looking for gathering spaces, the biggest change is the ground-floor gathering space that’s ADA accessible,” said Councilor Bok. “It’s really exciting to have this cultural asset re-enter our community in such a dynamic way.”
During her recent visit to The Vilna, Bok also met Dalit Ballen Horn, the organization’s executive director since February, for the first time.
Of the visit, Horn, whom the councilor described as a a “very impressive leader,” said: “We started off by giving Councilor Bok and her team a tour of The Vilna, both to tell the history of the building and of the Jewish community here on Beacon Hill going back over 100 years. Jewish immigration in Boston happened here so we’re not just telling the story of The Vilna Shul, but we’re also telling the story of the Jewish community in Boston.”
Horn said The Vilna Shul is “an organization that’s Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture, but also an organization that’s nestled inside Beacon Hill, so it’s really important that we meet our neighbors.”
Additionally, Horn said, “Jewish immigration in Boston happened here on the North Slope so we’re not just telling the story of The Vilna Shul, but we’re also telling the story of the Jewish community in Boston.”
By the end of their meeting, Horn said it was obvious to both Bok and herself this would be the continuation of a long and positive relationship between them, especially since the councilor lives on Beacon Hill and has long supported The Vilna.
“Councilor Bok was really able to appreciate the ways in which The Vilna Shul provides a gathering place for so many in community who seek to connect through arts and culture,” said Horn.
But even before her latest visit, Councilor Bok had already learned about The Vilna firsthand when she wandered in there several years ago and got a tour from a docent.
“It was a such a hidden gem to learn about in the neighborhood,” she said “It’s such a breathtaking place…and an amazing sanctuary. I was excited about it then and I’m even more excited to visit now after the renovation.”
Now, Councilor Bok is hoping to encourage people to seek out some of the extraordinary historical resources in the neighborhood, like The Vilna Shul.
“It’s so important to highlight the multiple strands of heritage we have on Beacon Hill, including the immigrant Jewish history and the African American history on the North Slope,” said Councilor Bok. “As councilor, I’m hoping the city can work with The Vilna Shul and some of the other cultural entities in the neighborhood, like the Museum of African American History, the West End Museum, and Old West Church, to really get the word out about this trove of history and culture in our midst.”
To learn more about The Vilna Shul, visit www.vilnashul.org.