Back to Shul

A synagogue that’s a museum to Boston’s Jewish heritage

backtoshulPhoto: Kathryn Kennedy

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ews were not granted full rights of citizenship in Massachusetts until 1821, and were not allowed to be buried in the state until 1844. But immigration picked up in the 19th century, and by 1900 there were 40,000 Jews in Boston and its suburbs; today there are about 250,000. The only synagogue in Boston remaining from the great era of immigration, the Vilna Shul, has been restored as a monument to this heritage. Built in 1919 by Jews from the Lithuanian city of Vilna (now called Vilnius) the shul is a hybrid between a European synagogue and a colonial New England meeting house, though it has traditional separate seating for men and women, who had their own door in the alley on the right. The two-story Ark of the Covenant was carved by Jewish artisans who formerly crafted wooden ponies for carousels in Eastern Europe. Services at the shul ended in 1985.

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Despite the fact that they themselves had fled religious persecution, the ruling Puritans banished Boston’s first Jewish resident, Solomon Franco, in 1640; another of Boston’s earliest Jews was required to convert to Christianity before he could join the Harvard faculty—to teach Hebrew.

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