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
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
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
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
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
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
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.' "