Hebrew name: Shira Hannah
Job: Operations coordinator at the Vilna Shul, Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture
Currently living in: Cambridge
Alma maters: Swampscott High School ’15, Marymount Manhattan College ‘19
Favorite foods: Mandu, momos, knishes, gyoza … anything in the dumpling family!
Favorite movies: “Cinema Paradiso,” “The Princess Diaries”
Favorite TV shows: “Get Organized with The Home Edit,” “Schitt’s Creek”
Favorite travel destinations: Madrid and Aruba
Somewhere you’d like to go next: Giraffe Manor in Nairobi, Kenya
Favorite Jewish people not in your family: Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin
Favorite Jewish holiday: Yom Kippur
Favorite North Shore spot: Eisman’s Beach, Swampscott
What is your Jewish background?
Since before I was born, my parents have been members of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead. I was enrolled in the religious school, attended services, and celebrated milestones – bat mitzvah to post confirmation. The best parts of growing up Jewish were my summers spent at Camp Pembroke and my parents’ involvement in our temple community. The passion they had and fulfillment they received from holding positions on various committees played an essential role in my positive Jewish upbringing and path to working in Jewish non-profits.
You now work at the Vilna Shul in Boston. What is that, and how did you get there?
The Vilna Shul located on Beacon Hill is Boston’s last remaining immigrant-era synagogue building and is now committed to being a vibrant center in downtown Boston that celebrates our culture, heritage, and values through arts and entertainment, holiday celebrations, and Jewish learning. I’ve always loved the arts and throughout college gravitated toward organizations that focused on the arts for summer jobs and internships. After completing my bachelor’s degree, I worked at 92NY’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Life in New York City, where I combined my Judaism and knowledge in the arts to help create meaningful Jewish experiences centered around music, art, and dance for young families. Unfortunately, my time at 92NY was cut short due to the pandemic. However, it brought me home to Boston and now I am able to pursue my interests at the Vilna. From developing website content, assisting at young adult programs, or partaking in the launch of our private event rental business, I am learning a tremendous amount about arts, culture, and how non-profit organizations function.
Where is the Vilna, following a two-year pandemic?
We are at an historic moment in the Vilna’s story. In 2019, we completed the first phase of a large capital renovation that included creating a state-of-the-art community room, new office space to accommodate a growing staff, the addition of a lift and ramp to make the building ADA accessible, and many other critical upgrades to the facility. Shortly after the completion of the renovation, the pandemic hit and the Vilna shut its physical doors and pivoted toward virtual programming. The silver lining of going virtual was having the opportunity to share our name and programs with individuals all over the globe. While we continue to offer virtual events, we have reopened for in-person programs and are excited to welcome the Greater Boston community to this national landmark. Earlier this month we hosted “Voices of Humanity,” an interfaith concert that celebrates Jewish, Muslim, and Christian tradition through song. It was special to have a sold-out crowd in our historic sanctuary after it had sat empty for too long. We look forward to more normalcy in the months ahead as we welcome people back for tours, author talks, educational workshops, film screenings, and more.
Is there a particular focus on programming for young adults?
Absolutely. Greater Boston is home to the largest young Jewish adult population in the country – constituting over 25 percent of the adult population. We know that most young adults, myself included, are interested in connecting to Judaism through culture and are at a stage in their lives when they are interested in establishing new friendships, trying out new experiences after work, and asking big questions about who they are and what their heritage and culture mean to them. Two of our recent programs included a glass art-making workshop where young adults explored Jewish values through the creation of mezuzot, Shabbat candleholders, and jewelry. We also held museum nights that included schmoozing and snacks on our patio followed by private tours of neighborhood museums. We seek to be a radically welcoming and inclusive destination for young adults of all backgrounds to explore Jewish culture and engage with others in their cohort.
How has working there affected your Jewish identity?
I’ve always been confident in my Jewish identity. The acceptance and progressiveness I saw from my Jewish leaders growing up made me proud to identify as Jewish and the same holds true working at the Vilna. 92NY and the Vilna have both enabled me to see that there is no wrong way to “do Jewish.” I see our values and traditions almost as “a la carte.” I can take what I need to create a Jewish identity that is authentic to me.
You were born in 1996, defined as the separating year between Millennials and Gen Z. How do you identify?
Older generations are quick to judge Millennials. When I encounter a negative stereotype about Millennials, I do have the benefit of rebutting with “but I’m a Gen Z.” However, all generations have their positives and negatives [including boomers] and I’m perfectly fine identifying with either.