Dalit B. Horn, Vilna Shul executive director, compares the shul’s successful revival to functioning like a “100-year-old startup.” And as a successful startup with a compelling mandate, the Vilna Shul, Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture, has been awarded a prestigious Signature Grant from the Covenant Foundation, along with two other Boston-based institutions: Hebrew College and Modern JewISH Couples.
Hebrew College will use the $150,000 grant to develop programs to enhance spiritual growth for future rabbis. In a press release, Rabbi Daniel Klein, dean of students, said, “While the acquisition of Judaic knowledge and professional skills, which traditionally have been the primary focus of rabbinic education, are critical, they are insufficient to prepare students for effective and enduring lives in the rabbinate.”
Modern JewISH Couples, founded in 2021 by Rabbi Jen Gubitz, will expand its programming and offerings to support Jewish couples of all identities and affiliations looking toward partnership and marriage. Gubitz will use her $45,000 Signature Grant to expand couples’ wedding workshops and cohort programming, as well as lifecycle training and support for friends and loved ones that couples have chosen to officiate their weddings. Gubitz will also be offering a “Mazel Box,” a special way to celebrate newly engaged couples.
The Vilna Shul’s $150,000 grant will be paid out over three years with money earmarked to develop a program called “Centered on Culture: Jewish Learning through the Arts.” With the funding, the Vilna Shul intends to rebrand and reinvent itself given its recent extensive renovations and a two-year closure due to the pandemic.
Horn said in a recent interview with JewishBoston that the historic shul has positioned itself as a destination for Greater Boston’s cultural Jews. The specific demographics targeted for arts-based programming and Jewish learning are Gen Z Jews, ages 27-37, looking to meet over social and cultural opportunities, and baby boomers whose nests have emptied. Horn and her staff have found commonalities between these two groups, which she described as “having the motivation at this stage of life to develop new friendships and centers of gravity both personally and intellectually.”
Focusing on these two cohorts in different stages of life is a fresh and original way of building community across ages and life experiences. The goal is to cultivate an intergenerational aspect for programming, learning opportunities and social events at the Vilna Shul. “It’s a diversity of people who can discover their common ground, whether honing skill or experimenting with learning about a subject,” she said. “Both dabblers and those who want to go deeper into a subject are welcome.”
To engage both cohorts, the Vilna Shul will call upon many of Boston’s natural resources in both organizations and people. As Horn wrote in the Vilna Shul’s statement of need for the Covenant Foundation application, their core partners will likely include CJP, arts and culture networks already embedded in Greater Boston Jewish life, organizations engaging young adults and the City of Boston’s Age Strong Commission, whose mandate is to promote the wellbeing of adults 55 and older. Horn and her staff also plan to collaborate and consult with national Jewish organizations committed to Jewish literacy and engagement through arts and culture.
Horn is also counting on Boston’s abundance of academics and scholars to teach courses through the Vilna Shul. Her goal is to increase the reach of these people beyond the university. Horn aims to mainstream the process of bringing them to the Vilna Shul and observes that if they are already teaching outside the university, it is usually in an ad hoc situation. For example, someone may belong to a synagogue or a JCC and give a lecture there because of their personal connection to that organization. “We want to identify scholars who teach Jewish and Israel studies through the humanities and create a pipeline whereby they can teach in the community,” she said. “It will create a nourishing situation for both teachers and students to engage with each other.”
Horn distinguishes between a future program or class at the Vilna Shul and other adult educational programs in the Boston area. Unlike many adult education programs, these seminars will be in the city, taught by leading scholars, open to adults of all backgrounds, highly interactive and rooted in the humanities. Now, many adult learning opportunities in the region are based in the suburbs and organized by synagogues that are membership-based organizations. Through this program, Horn hopes to make Jewish literacy and learning accessible to a segment of the Boston Jewish community that is often underrepresented in adult learning programs due to location or design of the class.
Horn also expects that “a Vilna class related to Jewish or Israel studies adds depth to the learning. We want to add color and nuance to conversations and headlines about Israel as well as topics related to broader Jewish culture. There are many ways that someone can develop a powerful connection to Jewish or Israeli history and culture through classes centered on film, dance, art history, music, culinary arts and literature.” She noted that while the prerequisites for a class in the humanities will be minimal, the quality of the class will capture the sophisticated nuances of the subject matter and what the scholars teaching the seminars will offer.
The Vilna Shul’s plan for the Signature Grant is ambitious. During the three years, Horn expects to expand seminar and class offerings, and correspondingly increase the number of participants. As she pointed out, the Vilna Shul’s grant application is based on research and data on what cultural Jews want and need. As she wrote, “Cultural Jews take their Jewish identity seriously and support national and global Jewish affairs but lack a nexus for Jewish identity formation, literacy and learning, and community building locally. ‘Centered on Culture’ programming was created to fill that gap.”
The data also suggests that the Vilna Shul’s downtown location makes it a natural hub that attracts people to its offerings. The young adults and empty nesters to whom the Vilna Shul aims to cater to already live in downtown neighborhoods. Additionally, the Vilna Shul has made going to Beacon Hill from the suburbs seamless with subsidized parking in a nearby garage and its walkable location to major MBTA stations nearby. And once people go through its doors, they will see the Vilna Shul itself is an inextricable part of the experience of attending a program there. Entering the Vilna Shul, a historic synagogue building with its beautiful sanctuary and stained-glass windows throughout, is a sensory experience enhancing the learning within its walls.
As Horn wrote in the Covenant application, “This initiative—[Centered on Culture: Jewish Learning through the Arts]—emerges from an abundance of data about cultural Jews, the changing landscape of the organizational ecosystem, and shifting migration patterns among Greater Boston Jewry.” To that end, “Centered on Culture” aims to be at the vanguard of deepening Jewish literacy, brokering social relationships and building intergenerational community ties among cultural Jews. And it’s a challenge the Covenant Foundation is confident the Vilna Shul will meet and fulfill along with its tagline as “Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture.”