by Dovid Katz (Vilnius)
VILNIUS—Since the Vilnius Choral Synagogue, the only one to survive the war as an in-use synagogue (there were around 160 in town before the Holocaust), was reopened for “one and all” several weeks ago by the controlling “Religious Jewish Community,” on Monday 13 February, services have been blissful and harmonious. On Friday night and Saturday morning services, more Litvak handshakes accompanied by Gut-Shábes and A gútn Shábes were echoed up on high than in many a moon. And, as a kind of special blessing for a demographically challenged post-Holocaust post-Soviet community, attendance has been growing, reaching the largest number in years last weekend (not counting visits by organized tourist groups). Cantor Shmuel Yusem had everyone transfixed with his magnificent cantorial talents. Both rabbis in town this past weekend, Rabbi Sholem Ber Krinsky, the Chabad rabbi who has lived here 22 years, and the community’s official junior rabbi, Samson Daniel Izakson, who arrived just over one year ago, gave excellent brief sermons at their usual junctures in the service (each has their traditional slot in the service for the Dvar-Tóyre, or Dvar Torah).
At the end of dávening, those who wish to attend a kiddush, both Friday night and Sabbath midday, have a choice of going upstairs with Rabbi Izakson or walking crosstown to Chabad House on Baksht Street (today’s Bokšto) for kiddush at Chabad House. A twice-a-year foreign visitor, an American who long ago settled in Israel, remarked: “Best service I’ve been to here, ever!” As per agreement of many years’ standing, all out-loud prayers and traditions strictly followed the Lithuanian Misnagdic rite from the bimah. Naturally different worshippers are free everywhere to pray silently according to their own diverse traditions of text, pronunciation, hummed melody, choice of language, and so forth.
As the old Yiddish saying goes, “There are dark spots even on the sun.” A number of people did overhear the congregation’s last Holocaust survivor, the beloved Ruvn Seligman, one of the last authentic shtetl-born Jews in the country (he’s from Shilél, today’s Šilalė) whose traditional role it is to decide whom to call up for each alíye (aliyah) to the Torah, apologizing profusely to Rabbi Krinsky for having been instructed by the other rabbi not to call him up at all to the Torah. Rabbi Krinsky laughed it off and told him, in Yiddish, “Zoln ále nor gezúnt zayn” (May everyone just be healthy!). Incidentally, Mr. Seligman’s Yiddish and Ashkenazic Hebrew are the last in the land characteristic of the western Litvak lands of Zámet (Samogitia, today’s Žemaitija in western Lithuania, hugging the Baltic coast).
It all seemed day and night from the horrific and shameful scenes of just last month, when burly armed security guards flaunting their guns on their upper bellies were videotaped (by the head of the Kaunas Jewish community, who was in town visiting), arrogantly keeping Rabbi Krinsky and various of his fellow worshippers and children from entering shul to pray (a second video here).
A scandal broke out over the grave abuse of Holocaust Restitution funds by its allocating authority, the “Good Will Foundation.” The funds, deriving in fact exclusively from the religious Jewish properties of the annihilated Jewry of Lithuania, were being used — asburd as it sounds — to keep the one long-time resident rabbi in town out of the one surviving synagogue with armed guards. Hard to get more far-fetched than that. It is understood that foreign members of the restitution board, including Herbert Block (New York), Nachliel Dison (Jerusalem), and Michael Hilsenrath (London), all insisted that they knew nothing of this abuse of funds. But as everything reverted to normal last month, the issue seemed to disappear as all wanted it to disappear, so the long-suffering Jewish community could get on with normal and happy community life.
And then, at 1:03 PM today Vilnius time, Rabbi Krinsky received the following email from the official head of the Religious Jewish Community, the widely respected Simas (Shmuel) Levinas, to which was appended an earlier email from the junior rabbi, Shimshon Daniel Izakson. The community’s senior official rabbi, Kalev Krelin, lives in Riga and did not visit his Vilnius constituency this week. Moreover, Mr. Levinas was himself not in attendance either on Friday night or Saturday morning.
The following is a translation of the email from Mr. Levinas and the appended earlier message from Rabbi Izakson, followed by a PDF of the originals in Russian. No changes have been made to either text other than the removal of all email addresses, to protect the privacy of the parties concerned. The emails were released today “with regret” by the office of Chabad Lithuania with authorization to Defending History to publish.
Rav Sholom Ber,
To my regret, you do not pay attention to my oral and written request to comply with the orders and rules of our synagogue.
You see politeness and respect as a weakness.
Starting with Tuesday (27.02.2017), you are banned from entering the synagogue for breaking its rules, namely showing disrespect to the rabbi of the synagogue.
We will gladly let you pray together with us, after your oral or written commitment to follow our synagogue’s rules and order.
Shmuel (Simas) Levin
Chairperson of the Vilnius Jewish Religious Community
I want to inform you, that even after receiving a polite letter with a request to follow the synagogue’s order, sent to rabbi Krinsky, his behavior hasn’t changed in any way.
He keeps shouting out page numbers, which not only disorients the faithful, but also shows that the management of the community is not in control over the situation in the synagogue.
Several members of the minyan had addressed me with complaints about Krinsky’s behavior.
Amit Belaitė had come to Shabbat with some young members of the Lithuanian Jewish Community and foreign guests. The breaking of order and this hooliganism made everybody uncomfortable.
Shimshon D. Isakson