As the new incoming executive director of The Vilna Shul, Dalit Ballen Horn intends to put the focus for Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture on the people themselves.
“Now’s the moment when The Vilna needs to focus on the people,” said Horn, whose official start date in her new position is Feb. 22. “And when I say ‘people,’ I’m really thinking about how The Vilna can deepen relationships and foster community among the people who participate in its programs.”
A native of southern Florida, Horn relocated to New York City to attend a joint program between Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America that carried a heavy workload and ultimately earned her two bachelor’s degrees. She met her future husband at Columbia and remained in New York for 10 years before he landed a medical residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which brought them both to the Boston area in 2010.
Prior to the move, Horn had been serving as the Assistant Director for the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Belfer Center for American Pluralism – a New York-based global Jewish advocacy organization that allowed her to continue working remotely when she and her husband settled in Brookline.
In 2014, Horn earned a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and that same year, she also found new employment as the director of program administration for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, a self-described “leading center of applied Jewish thought and education.”
Like the AJC, the Institute is based in New York, and again, Horn worked remotely for the nonprofit from Brookline while visiting the home office several times each month, as well as traveling across North America and to Israel a couple times a year.
During her time with the Institute, Horn helped grow its programmatic offerings exponentially and was entrusted with key responsibilities in furthering the organization’s national strategy, vision, and fundraising efforts, and she rose the ranks to eventually serve as its vice president of strategic partnerships and impact.
“Each promotion I received was both the organization growing and I was growing within the organization,” Horn said. “I became an ambassador for the organization and got to really understand what the programming was and what our product essentially was and who our audiences could be.”
Although Horn has now resided in the Boston area for just over a decade, her new role at The Vilna will be the first time she has worked for a truly “local” outfit. “I joke that this is my first job in Boston, even though I’ve been living here for more than 10 years,” she said.
This new opportunity is also unique, Horn said, because it allows her to join the Vilna at a time when the organization is poised to pursue new strategic directions and expand its impact.
“I think that for a long time, The Vilna has focused on restoring its physical place and developing a wide range of programs for various audiences,” Horn said.
The Vilna is now seeking to expand its “footprint,” she said, by deepening its impact among young adult populations and empty-nesters who have left the suburbs to move back into the city.
“Young adults and empty nesters alike are interested in tapping into their culture, and hungry for community and connection,” Horn said. “The Vilna is a center where one can celebrate their history, expand their Jewish knowledge, develop meaningful relationships, and contribute to their broader community.
Horn also hopes the Vilna will now commit itself to what she described as the fourth ‘P.’
“The Vilna is not just about its place, programming and people. At its core, we need to internalize our purpose, and the power of working in partnership to advance our shared values,” she said.
Besides expanding its own demographics, Horn believes The Vilna should focus on “building partnerships with the broader network of social justice organizations in the Greater Boston area.”
Horn added, “In addition to being an inclusive and welcoming center for Jewish culture and engagement, The Vilna is committed to deepening its partnerships with local organizations that promote pluralism and seek to combat hatred, bigotry and discrimination.”
As the only immigrant-era synagogue in Boston, Horn said, “The Vilna has an acute understanding of the biblical commandment to “know the feelings of the stranger, having [ourselves] been strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Marilyn Okonow, president of the board of directors, has high hopes for the future of The Vilna under Horn’s leadership.
“We are thrilled to welcome Dalit as the leader of our organization at this significant inflection point in the history of our organization,” Okonow said in a press release. “The Vilna is poised to become the central gathering place in Boston for relevant and meaningful discourse on contemporary Jewish topics. Dalit has the experience, knowledge and expertise to help expand our footprint, strengthen our programming and deepen our impact.”
Likewise, Marc Baker, president and CEO of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, said in a press release: “Dalit Ballen Horn is a passionate, dynamic leader whose experience on the national stage will bring tremendous value to our community. Having known Dalit for many years, I have seen how committed she is to building a thriving, diverse, creative, and connected Boston Jewish community. My colleagues and I are excited to partner with her and The Vilna Shul.”