18 March 2008

Boston: Building the past

In the 1930s, some 115,000 Jews and 50 synagogues were concentrated in the Boston, Massachusetts neighborhoods of South End, North End, West, End, East Boston, Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan.

A treasure trove of these memories is at the The Boston Center for Jewish Heritage, located at the Historic Vilna Shul on Phillips Street in Beacon Hill, according to a story in the Jewish Advocate. The Orthodox shul closed in 1985 after 65 years; repair work began in the early 1990s to save the building and create the center.

"The Boston Jewish Experience: Reconnect to the Tapestry" is a first floor exhibit which opened in December, and looks at Boston's Jews from 1850-1950. The interactive booth is one of the most popular exhibits; visitors can look up surnames and learn about their family history. According to the center's executive director Steven M. Greenberg, the Center worked with the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston on this feature.

Costing $100,000 to complete, the formerly cavernous first floor is currently home to a collection of enlarged photos, maps, charts, books, original pieces of furniture and an electronic interactive “shtender” on which visitors can go back in time to the once vibrant Jewish communities of Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan and the West End itself.

While informative and more aesthetically pleasing than before the recent restoration, the exhibit is a temporary one that would require more money to refurbish the area and complete a more permanent display. Among the enlarged photos is one of the Baldwin Street Synagogue taken in 1910, reportedly the earliest image of a Boston synagogue on record. It was donated by a woman who had it in a drawer for 50 years. The bima from the synagogue is said to now be at Temple B’nai Brith in Somerville.

The exhibit has images back to the turn of the century, maps and charts and artifacts recollecting a century of precious memories in the old Jewish neighborhoods of Boston and in today's suburbs.

Another reason for the center, said Greenberg:

“All over the area, primarily young people working in the city want a place to connect to their Judaism,” he said during a recent tour. “We want to be the center for Jewish history and culture in Boston. We want to keep the memories alive.”

Although 2,000 people have contributed and $3 million was raised, another $3 million is sought to continue building improvement projects.

Exhibit visitor Mel Berger, whose roots are in Vilna and whose grandparents attended services there in the 1970s, is quoted:

“This building is a legacy to the history and heritage of the immigrant Jewish community,” he said standing near the bima in the sanctuary facing the intricately carved wooden Ark. “There is no place in Boston central to the Jewish experience. To have this here pulls the stories together. It’s fascinating and there is no other place like it.”

Greenburg says it is a miracle that the site was not bought by a real estate developer or turned into a parking lot. Sports fans may want to know that the grandfather of Jonathan Kraft (owner of the Patriots) was the cantor at the Vilna Shul.

Among the Center's activities are holiday celebrations (Purim megillah reading and party, 7.30-11pm, Thursday, March 20), the Vilna Shul's speakers series, Shabbat services, Havurah and more.

Kol hakavod to those dedicated to developing the Center and preserving the area's Jewish memories. For more information, click here.

Read the complete story here. For other stories on the center in Boston-area publications, click here.

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