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Nestled within Bostonâ€™s picturesque Beacon Hill neighborhood, the Vilna Shul is a gem that the city is lucky to have. The cultural center opens its doors widely to the entire Boston community, offering substantive Jewish programming, dynamic historical and contemporary exhibits and an egalitarian minyanÂ (a Jewish prayer group).
In this interview, which is as fascinating as the Vilna Shul itself, Program Manager Jessica Antoline discusses what sets the Vilna Shul apart from many organizations, and provides a glimpse into the uniquely honest and well-rounded framework with which the shulâ€™s staff coordinates programming.
The Vilna Shul continues to honor its long multicultural history and has been a wonderfully inclusive space for Jewish interfaith and interracial families to celebrate life cycle events and participate in programming.
There are so many things! I like to think that the Vilna stands apart for three reasons:
1. On a historical level, we are itâ€”the last synagogue from the era that brought most Jews to Boston (1880-1924). It’s an era that changed the city entirely, and we are the only place where you can learn about the Jewish contribution to that change.
2. We are also a hybrid organization, functioning both spiritually and culturally when we need to. We are non-denominational and open to all walks of Jewish life. Just to give you an example, we can have a Shabbat one day and a lecture on the rise of Jewish atheists the next. It’s very exciting.
3. I like to think that all of us at the Vilna try to share a realistic rather than idealistic Jewish story. We love to tell the happy stories, but we will never shy away from the dark sides of Jewish history. Jews are humans. We can both build up and break the world so easily. As I like to say to our visitors, Jewish people are all pieces of one dynamic culture worth celebrating. But we were never a people apart, never a people who stayed static in our actions or philosophies. Like every person we have our light and dark sides to our history. Like every people we need to evaluate who we are and what we are doing in and for this world. At the Vilna, we challenge what it means to be Jewish, what Jewish traditions and histories are and where they come from without any judgment or criticism. Through this open line of communication, I like to think we help strengthen people’s understanding of themselves and their community.
What are the ways in which interfaith families and couples have enriched the Vilna Shul?
They help us keep our focus and ensure that we are doing our job. At the Vilna Shul our mission is to preserve and share Jewish culture in ways that are open and accessible to everyone, Jewish or not. What is the Vilna if it is not offering the public what it wants and needs? It becomes just a building without any life. Interfaith couples and families bring new perspectives, lead members of the community to think closely about their words and actions, and help everyone understand each other on a level far deeper than if they were absent from the community.
What programming do you offer that support the needs of interfaith families? How have those initiatives or programs helped the community and those families and couples?
All of our programming is open to interfaith families. Generally when it comes to addressing their needs, we do it within programs during the planning process rather than hosting programs about interfaith issues. (We know that is your field, not ours!) We ensure that every program we offer can be accessed equally by those who identify as Jewish and those who do not.Â From having words in transliteration and translation to working specifically with scholars, historians, musicians and others who are experienced in working with diverse groups, we always try to answer the question “would I understand this concept if I lived outside of a Jewish context?” before bringing a program to the public.
Our Havurah on the Hill Shabbats and holiday celebrations are an excellent example of this. HOH was designed to be accessible to everyone. It’s actually the number one thing people love about the program. The young Jews who attend come from many backgrounds: children of traditional Jewish backgrounds, children of interfaith parents, couples who are interfaith but considering a Jewish path, Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, secular…everything!
In your experience or based upon what members/visitors have told you, what are the salient considerations regarding interfaith families that the Vilna Shul takes into consideration when making institutional decisions or developing programming and education?
Language is always a consideration, based on what our community has told us. They appreciate that we try to make everything we do accessible so we always consider that when making a program. They also appreciate when we bring in many histories based on who is in the audience. For example, if we know that someone attending a program may have a friend, child, or partner who is Catholic-Irish or Hindu or Baptist African American, we try and take the time to make reference to their histories and any connections they have to Jewish history.
What brings you the most joy in your work, particularly your and the Vilna Shulâ€™s leadership around diversity and inclusion?
Actually, what I just talked about brings me the most joy. Being open to everyone, being known as a safe, accessible place to talk about all aspects of Jewish culture, makes me love my job. No one is here to define your Jewishness for you. Instead, you are given access to information and a non-judgmental atmosphere. You must decide the rest! Sounds easy, right? But the pursuit of knowledge and freedom of choice are such difficult paths to take.
I smile when I see interfaith couples getting married at the Vilna. I love seeing a child of an interfaith and intercultural relationship shine as they read from the Torah during their bar or bat mitzvah. My heart soars when a Muslim student tells me he finally found a place and a person to ask the questions he was holding inside for so long.
So many couples I marry have one partner who grew up at an area congregation but left after their bar or bat mitzvah. I have thought about creative ways to reunite this person and now this couple with their synagogue of origin, so to speak. There is probably still a picture of them from some class on the wall there! Then it occurred to me, why do synagogues let families just leave? If a family calls the executive director of a congregation to say that they are leaving, the conversation should end with them staying members unless theyâ€™re moving away or have a pressing need to leave the synagogue.
Why do people leave synagogues? Money. The synagogue can sympathize with the fact that the financial commitment is difficult to meet for many families. For some, they struggled to pay the dues in order to see their children through their bar or bat mitzvah and feel relieved to take these thousands of dollars of cost off their budget. Thus, the synagogue could say: You are not members because you pay dues. You are members because you have been part of this community. Anything you can contribute now that you are in a different stage of life will help our synagogue stay open and functioning. However, you are not off of our emails and off of our newsletter list and we do not bar you from holiday services because you need a break from the yearly dues after so many years of supporting the congregation in this way.
Whatever the synagogue then collects from this family will be more than if the family had left never to walk through its doors again. But now, wonâ€™t other people want to stop paying too? Each house of worship will have to figure out how this plan can work. Do they give post bar/bat mitzvah families a three year period of reduced dues and then hope that they have found value in the continued connection to the congregation and they can again make a bigger financial contribution? Money alone cannot make someone suddenly a â€śnon-member.â€ť
Another reason people may give for leaving a synagogue is that they donâ€™t â€śneed it anymore.â€ť Now that their children are through this major life cycle event, the parents in the family donâ€™t feel a need to attend the congregation. They are not Shabbat attendees, they donâ€™t come for adult education or Torah study. They would like to come for High Holidays, but they are not going to pay $3,000 a year for this when they can be someoneâ€™s guest or just buy tickets. The response the synagogue could have is, â€śyou are still members here.â€ť We will still be in touch and you can still attend any or all programs of the Temple.
Then a conversation could take place (preferably in person) about what they would enjoy coming to. Do you like cooking? We have cooking classes. Do you like knitting? We have knitting circles? Downtown lunch and learns? Meeting occasionally with the rabbi to talk about your aging parents, trouble with your teenager, a new health diagnosis you are facing? Your own marriage issues? We are here for you.Â It turns out you donâ€™t attend services because you canâ€™t read Hebrew? We can help with this. We need to be relevant for people beyond bar and bat mitzvot.
We obviously cannot make someone stay a member who does not want to receive information from the synagogue and who has had a negative experience there. Some say that so much of the correspondence with a synagogue involves asking for more money: money for a building campaign, money for memorial plaques, etc. I think that most people would be thrilled to hear that they are still members, even if they canâ€™t or wonâ€™t pay the same dues anymore.
Now, what about the people who do not call the office to say that they are stopping their membership. The synagogue knows who has just stopped paying. Those people probably receive a phone call and hopefully an in-person meeting to say, â€śWe miss youâ€¦whatâ€™s going on?â€ť When people have ties to a community, it is hard to leave. Letâ€™s make it hard for people to leave.