At nearly 100 years old, Vilna Congregation will soon undergo a new chapter of its life.
The synagogue recently closed in anticipation of renovations. These renovations are expected to include Center City’s long-awaited Mai Shalva Mikvah, which will be built on the first floor. The synagogue will hold its services and kiddushes on the second floor, which will be renovated to have a complete floor to better meet that need.
The last services were held at the synagogue the final Shabbat of December.
Rabbi Menachem Schmidt said he expects the synagogue to reopen in a few months. Until then, Vilna has moved its services to B’nai Abraham Chabad one block over.
“It needs major renovations anyway,” Schmidt said, “so this is a great thing one way or another. It’s a great thing no matter how you look at it. It’s a very holy thing and an important thing, and it’ll be great in all ways. There are a lot of memories, but there’ll be new memories.”
For the Vilna community, the closing of the shul and its impending changes are bittersweet.
With its women’s balcony and an ark topped by two lions and stained glass windows, Vilna is “a little bit of Europe set down in a Society Hill rowhouse,” a 1990 Jewish Exponent article described. For many, the synagogue’s visage was an integral part of its homey atmosphere, as well as its old country feeling.
“The image of Vilna is so engraved in my mind,” said attendee Marianna Salz, who is the director of client services at the Jewish Relief Agency. “The old books, the peeling paint. It had a personality, so I can’t imagine what that other personality is going to be. I’m excited for it moving toward the future, but I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like.”
Salz has attended services at Vilna regularly since 2002.
Over the years, the faces she saw at the synagogue changed. When attendees there married and started families, they moved away and were replaced by others. But the feeling Vilna had — its homeyness and its openness — never changed.
“Anyone can sit in,” Salz said. “Everyone’s accepted. No matter who you are, where you come from, your background, the level of Judaism you observe, you’re welcome.”
Chani Baram, Schmidt’s daughter who grew up with Vilna, attributes the openness, at least partially, to the fact that she has three brothers with special needs. Their family wasn’t the most conventional, Baram said, which helped give Vilna its atmosphere.
“Services there are very special,” said Baram, who is a co-founder of the Philly Friendship Circle. “It reminds me a lot of the experience of being in Israel, where just something very magical about when Shabbat comes in. … That feels like, to me, Vilna. There’s just some special energy.”
It’s not a big synagogue, but a lot of people have met their spouses or had their simchas there, Baram said.
Jeff and Rachel Lobman are one couple who met at Vilna during a Simchat Torah celebration in 1999. They started talking at the shul and, as the congregants left the building and paraded with the Torah toward Market Street, they kept talking.
They were friends for a year before they started dating. They got married at the University of Pennsylvania’s Houston Hall, and Schmidt married them.
“Outside of each other, it was probably one of the easiest wedding decisions we had to make,” Jeff Lobman said.
Vilna’s building became a synagogue in 1922. The shul’s impending renovations are not the first changes the congregation has undergone in its history. One major change happened in 1988, when the congregation asked Schmidt to take over the synagogue.
By then, the synagogue’s population was shrinking as its congregants passed away and, according to an Exponent article, it had taken to paying people to be part of its minyans.
Schmidt at the head of the pulpit meant the synagogue went from being functionally Conservative to Orthodox. But it also may have saved the synagogue.
“It was either Menachem Schmidt or we close the doors and sell the building,” congregant Elliott Weinberg told the Exponent in 1990. “We had a lot of questions about the Lubavitchers and about the separate seating.
“But I didn’t want to see Vilna become a church. We were glad someone wanted to use the building for a Jewish purpose.”
Now, on top of Shabbat services, Vilna hosts small Saturday afternoon fabrengens, where attendees sing, dance, talk and drink. These fabrengens also attract people who don’t go to services there.
“That’s one of the most beautiful things that Vilna has been able to contribute to Center City for all of these years,” Schmidt said. “That’s not stopping anytime soon. It’s going to take a little vacation for a few months, but after, that’s coming back.”
The last Shabbat there drew more than usual.
“This is moving fast, and we did this kind of suddenly,” Schmidt said. “It was very Vilna. Very open. We had all the meals there. It was a nice crowd for Vilna.”
The attendees included many old faces, too, Salz said, of people who had been regulars in the past but had since moved away when they started families.
On Friday evening, Salz sat where she usually does, in the balcony. Most of the women, she said, sit downstairs, in the women’s section separated by the mechitza, so sometimes she’s the only woman in the balcony.
“You felt that it was the historic place,” she said. “I felt like I was in another world, like I was in a shtetl, in the old country.”
When the renovations are done, the synagogue will take up a smaller place, but big isn’t what Vilna’s about anyways.
“The whole idea of Vilna is it has to be what’s called in Yiddish haymish, to be a place where a person feels at home,” Schmidt said. l