Quarrels keep Vilnius synagogue closed

  • 2004-09-02
  • By Milda Seputyte
VILNIUS-The only practicing synagogue in Vilnius was closed on Aug. 30 for the third time this year due to unresolved arguments between the Jewish Community of Lithuania and the Chabad Lubavitch organization.

On Aug. 25 the Vilnius synagogue opened to host an evening memorial for Moshe Kouscevitzky, a famous Jewish cantor, in connection with the second World Litvak (Lithuanian Jewish) Congress. But immediately after the concert a new row broke out between Chabad Lubavich followers and members of the Jewish Community of Lithuania.
"Chabad Lubavitch does not obey the maxims of the synagogue. The young people stamp their feet during the service and insult Chief Rabbi Burstein with unquotable words," said Simonas Alperavicius, chairman of the community.
Clashes between the two Jewish communities began in May, when the Vilnius synagogue was closed for the first time. The roots of the resentment are embedded among unsettled rights to Lithuania's Jewish heritage and quarrels over the position of chief rabbi in the country.
"Civilized people leave the synagogue after it's closed. When the alarm was turned on, they were hiding in the synagogue - therefore our guards had to use physical force to take them out," Alperavicius said.
Chabad Lubavitch, however, saw things differently.
"After the concert was over, people went down to pray and suddenly they were literally carried from the synagogue," said Mariam Levina, a representative of Chabad Lubavitch.
According to Alperavicius, the hostility was incited by Rabbi Shalom Ber Krinsky's ambitions to become a chief rabbi in Lithuania and take control over the Jewish Community's restituted property.
For generations, members of the Vilnius Jewish community were known not only as followers of Gaon, the renowned commentator of the Talmud and the Torah, but also as strictly opposing the Chassidic movement.
Therefore, during the interwar period, Chassidic followers had almost no property in Vilnius that they could nowadays reclaim.
Finally, in 1994 Rabbi Krinsky established Chabad Lubavitch, the first Chassidic community in Vilnius.
But traditional Gaon followers in Lithuania claim that Krinsky wants to gain similar powers to his Russian equivalent.
"Chassidic positions are much stronger in Russia, where Jewish traditions are lost. Therefore, President Vladimir Putin appointed the Chabad representative as a chief rabbi in Russia, and Krinsky wants to achieve the same in Lithuania," said Alperavicius.
Meanwhile, the Chabad Lubavitch community blames Alperavicius for intending to overtake the restitution of Jewish property.
The government is currently preparing an amendment to regulate the compensation of Jewish property. According to proposed amendments, the property will be assigned to a new foundation that includes various Jewish organizations and communities.
"Alperavicius is not even a religious person. He wanted to become a chairman of the religious Jewish community in order to become the only person in charge of the restitution," said Levina.
Although this new religious group has their own premises for prayers, the traditional Jewish community is allowed to pray in their synagogue.
According to the Jewish Community of Lithuania, Krinsky started calling himself chief rabbi about three years ago on the Internet and in the Lithuanian media, despite the fact that no elections were held to elect him.
Still, the Jewish community refuses to recognize Krinsky as their rabbi. Over 500 Litvaks signed a document strongly disagreeing with the Chassidic rabbi's candidacy.
"We have suggested that our rabbi and Krinsky could take turns in celebrating mass. However, he did not want any compromises," said Alperavicius.
In February a group of Krinsky's followers gathered secretly to elect a new council representing the Jewish community. The documents were later sent to the Ministry of Justice for registration.
"Where and when in the world did one organization [Chabad Liubavich] have a right to re-elect the leaders of another organization [Gaon followers]?" wrote Milan Chersonsky, editor of the Jewish community newspaper Jerusalem of Lithuania. "Fortunately, their intents failed because the Ministry of Justice realized the legal null of the documents."
During the Litvak congress, while supporting traditional Gaon followers' positions, Litvaks from 13 countries signed a resolution declaring that the actions of the Chubad Lubavich leader are a matter of great concern.