Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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20 Sivan 5764 - June 9, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Lithuanian Jewry is Reviving
Lubavitch trying to wrest a share of the community properties

by Yated Ne'eman Staff

The 100 year old Choral Taharat HaKodesh Synagogue in Vilna was recently closed by the Lithuanian Jewish community after fistfights broke out there on Shavuos between supporters of Rabbi Chaim Burshtein, chief rabbi of Vilna and Lithuania, and the local Lubavitch Rabbi Sholom Krinsky. In the wake of the closing Rabbi Krinsky and his followers entered the apartment of Rabbi Burshtein without authorization and, according to Rabbi Burshtein, pushed off his guests and caused him injuries.

Vilna, once known as "the Jerusalem of Lithuania," is famous for its many past gedolei Torah, and especially the Vilna Gaon. Lithuania is known to have opposed the Chassidic movement all along, and in fact Lubavitch supporters who, almost alone among modern Jewry insist on continuing the "struggle" against those who oppose Chassidim (called by them "misnagdim"), often refer to their all those who do not agree with them as "Litvaks" regardless of their true ethnic background.

In a telephone interview Rabbi Burshtein told Yated that the Jewish community in Lithuania is small but reviving. Altogether there are about 4,000 Jews in the country. Most of them live in Vilna, but there are also communities in Kovno, Ponovezh, Klaipeda (Memel) and Shaulei (Shawel) -- aside from scattered Jews in smaller concentrations in places such as Telz.

Rabbi Burshtein says that the roads in Lithuania are generally pretty good and he can reach Kovno from Vilna in only an hour and a quarter. Recalling the stories about the long and difficult wagon journeys that yeshiva students took a hundred years ago, this shows a significant change. In Kovno the community has control of an old shul and there is a daily minyan. The yeshiva building in Slobodka, across the river, is now used as a sewing factory. In Ponovezh the community is not as active. The building of yeshiva is used by a large bakery. Memel has a young religious man who organizes a minyan on Shabbos.

Vilna is the largest community and Rabbi Burshtein's minyan draws 70-80 people on Shabbos. The also have three minyanim every day. The Choral Taharat HaKodesh Synagogue is the only one of Vilna's synagogues from before the war that is now under the control of the Jewish community.

Although he has only been in Vilna a few months, Rabbi Burshtein has already justified the community's confidence in him when it chose him as its rov. He found it a worthwhile place to invest his talents and the community has responded.

In addition to the shul activities, Rabbi Burshtein is initiating the building of a mikveh and plans to open a soup kitchen soon. He has also organized social activities for the youth.

Most of community is not religious, explained Rabbi Burshtein, but they revere their Lithuanian heritage and especially the Vilna Gaon. Even though many of those now living there are of Russian and not Lithuanian extraction, they are proud of the legacy of Lithuanian Jewry and definitely view themselves as its heirs.

Since Rabbi Burshtein has arrived he has suffered harassment from Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky. Simon Gurevichius, president of the Union of Jewish Youth and Students in Lithuania and a 23-year-old Lithuanian whose mother tongue is Yiddish, said, "Rabbi Krinsky has been waging a war against the Jewish Community of Lithuania and its legal and legitimate leaders."

The general Lithuanian Jewish community is led by Dr. Simon Alperovich, who is a descendant of the Rashash who was one of the great rabbonim of Vilna. Gurevichius says of him, "He devoted his life to the renewal of the Jewish Community of Lithuania, and he had worked out a real miracle."

This past Shavuos things reached a boiling point. The traditional custom in Vilna is to read Megillas Rus on the first day of Shavuos. However, when the congregation began to do so, Rabbi Krinsky and several of his followers began to yell and disrupt the services. Later, when Rabbi Burshtein rose to deliver his sermon, they again began yelling, according to Rabbi Burshtein.

The community decided that they could not operate the shul under those circumstances, and they closed it down for the second day of Shavuos. In the meantime it has remained closed and the community is forced to daven in the community center building.

Rabbi Burshtein told Yated that up until World War II, the Jews were 45 percent of the population of Vilna. Of these, 96 percent were murdered by the Germans and, in some cases, by their Lithuanian neighbors. Of the 105 shuls that served the Vilna community before the war, only the Choral Taharat HaKodesh Synagogue is currently in Jewish hands.

The expectation is that the Lithuanian government will restore more of the former Jewish property to Jewish hands. The community, in cooperation with the Joint Distribution Committee, is negotiating with the authorities about this.

Gurevichius explains, "Chabad didn't own any property in Lithuania before the war, so for Rabbi Krinsky the only option to have a stake in the property issue is to take over our community. On the other hand, we know that for Chabad Lubavitch it would be a big success to occupy the chair of the Gaon of Vilna.

"Our Community has chosen Rabbi Burshtein as our Chief Rabbi. He follows the tradition of Vilna and of the Gaon of Vilna. Rabbi Burshtein can lead us along path that our community has chosen. Rabbi Burshtein is a man of unstained morals, a former refusenik who fought the KGB with the same determination that he is ready to fight for Jewish Life."

Rabbi Burshtein said, "As I have been attacked by an unruly band led by Rabbi Krinsky, I ask my fellow rabbis for protection and solidarity. I urge them not to stand idle in the face of the brutal aggression I was object.

"I ask Jews around the world to defend sheeris hapleitoh, the few upholding the glorious tradition in the `Jerusalem of Lithuania.' "


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