Otis House

Vilna Shul, 18 Phillips Street

Eastern European Jewish immigrants arrived to the city of Boston in large numbers beginning in the 1880s. With little income, they looked to rebuild their old communities anew in the United States. Many Jews settled in neighborhoods like the North and West Ends of Boston where cheaper housing was available. There Jews often formed a landsmanschaft – an organization of re-settled people originally from the same area in Europe.

This was the case for a group of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania who formed a landsmanschaft in 1893 on the north slope of Beacon Hill and Boston’s West End. They prayed together, gathering a minyan – ten men needed to hold a complete Jewish prayer service – in the homes of their members. As their membership increased and they formed a traditional Jewish congregation, they needed a permanent synagogue. They called themselves Anshei Vilner or “the People of Vilnius” and sought a new home for their group

On December 11, 1919, Anshei Vilner laid the cornerstone for its new building at 18 Phillips Street. The congregation employed the only Jewish architect in the city, Max Kalman, and young men in the community helped with the construction. Vilner congregants painted the walls and ceiling of their new synagogue with decorative murals, a long-standing tradition of Eastern European Jews. Three distinct sets of murals covered the walls of the Vilna Shul, although these paintings were later covered over with beige paint. Today they are some of the only examples of pre-war Jewish mural art in the United States.