When Christen Hazel first read the posting for The Vilna Shul’s director of development position, she almost felt as though the job description had been written specifically with her in mind.
“I had a desire to join an organization dedicated to preserving history and building a welcoming community steeped in Jewish traditions,” said Hazel, whose first full day in the role is Monday, June 22. “So, this is like my dream job, to be honest.”
A West End resident, Hazel comes to her new position after serving as director of development of the Beacon Academy, a Boston-based private school that offers aspiring, underprivileged students a 14-month school year between eight and ninth grades with the goal of getting them scholarships to independent high schools that will prepare them for college.
“Beacon Academy is great place that’s doing really special work,” Hazel said of the school, which is the only of its kind in the U.S., “but when I saw this opportunity I couldn’t pass it up.”
Hazel discovered The Vilna Shul – the only Jewish historic building remaining in Downtown Boston – as a new transplant to the city.
“I had attended a few programs at the Vilna over the years with my family and had certainly researched all about the building, its rich history and the beautiful murals that were being restored,” she said.
The Vilna offered her as a newcomer to the city a sense of belonging, something she found she had in common with others she met there.
“It’s a really a welcoming community, and I know a lot of people here from the North Shore who took a similar path by moving from the suburbs to the city,” she said.
About four year ago, Hazel and her family relocated to Boston from Andover, where from 2009 to 2016, she served as director of advancement for The Pike School, a private pre-K-9.
“It was great because our long-term plan was to move to the city,” she said, adding that her family moved to Boston earlier than anticipated so her son could attend Boston University Academy. “That decision sped it up a bit.”
Hazel has become more immersed in the Jewish faith in the past few years, making her latest career move also seem serendipitous.
“I was drawn to the Vilna because of its rich history and eclectic community,” she said. “On a personal note, I fell in love with Judaism and relished a chance to continue that journey.”
Meanwhile, Hazel comes to the Vilna during a transformative time for the organization as its 101-year-old synagogue just underwent an extensive $4 million facelift.
Besides providing universal access to the Phillips Street building via a new entrance, work involved the creation of a new community room with seating capacity for 100 occupants; a new visitor’s center and gift shop; a multi-use educational classroom; a family room within the historic kitchen; and new office space for staff and volunteers. Other improvements included the restoration and reproduction of the rest of the decorative murals in the building’s sanctuary and historic foyer, as well as the installation of a new HVAC system and state-of-the-art audio/visual systems.
In her new role, Hazel will be spearheading the capital campaign for Phase 2 of the Vilna’s ambitious renovation plans, which entails the completion of restoration work on the remaining murals in the sanctuary, as well as a third phase that includes enhancing its educational infrastructure and establishing an endowment to secure the organization’s long-term future.
“People often say, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do what you do. I could never ask people for money,’” Hazel said. “Fundraising is about building relationships over time. It’s getting to know people’s hopes and dreams for a better world and then matching those wishes with opportunities to support the Vilna philanthropically. ‘The ask’ takes about five minutes. The relationship builds over years.”
Marilyn Okonow, chair of the organization’s board of directors, believes Hazel, who brings more than 20 years of experience in the nonprofit world to the job, along with her deep devotion to the Vilna, is more than up to the task.
“Christen really loves our organization, the culture and our history, and she understands our mission very well,” Okonow said. “She’s the perfect choice for our director of development during a moment in time when our organization is planning for the next decade. We’re very excited to have her expertise and enthusiasm.”
And as The Vilna Shul is now increasingly broadening its audience by bringing its programming to more than 3,000 people online since the launch of its Virtual Vilna initiative in late March, Hazel looks forward to introducing newcomers from all faiths and walks of life to this unique, welcoming and inclusive cultural center.
“While we do celebrate Jewish holidays and offer special programming around them, the Vilna is so much more,” she said. “We’re reaching a broader audience. Everything from visiting artists, authors, filmmakers to pickle making to history classes to musical performances, the Vilna has something for everyone.