LONDON—Defending History has learned from reliable sources that The Judicial Division of the London Beth Din (Court of the Chief Rabbi) issued a summons on 27 February 2017 (1 Adar 5777 by the Hebrew calendar) calling upon Simas Levinas, chairperson of the Vilna Jewish Religious Community, and Faina Kukliansky, chairperson of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, to “agree to attend a hearing and sign a binding Arbitration Agreement, on receipt of which we will fix a hearing date for the mutual convenience of all parties.”
The document cites the claims of the plaintiff, Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky, who has been resident in Vilnius and, with his wife Rebbetzin Nechama Dina Krinsky, has performed a vast array of religious services for all in the community who have wished to avail themselves, over 22 years. Those claims include “that he has been excluded from access to the only synagogue in Vilnius whereas for many years now he was not only allowed access to the synagogue but was permitted to address the community on Shabbatot and Yamim Tovim [Sabbaths and holidays] and was also allowed to instruct those attending the synagogue how to pray and to follow the service.” The judicial relief sought is an Order of the court that Rabbi Krinsky be allowed to attend and give talks and instruction to the community as he has been doing in many capacities since 1994. There has never been a complaint from a congregant about the quality, manner or delivery of those services, to the best knowledge of all parties consulted.
This call to a Din Tóyre (Din Torah, rabbinical court) is a traditional, peaceful, dignified way of settling Jewish disputes via a process of trust in the rabbinic judge adjudicating the matter. It is akin to the concept of arbitration. The London Beth Din is often thought of as the world’s leading rabbinical court, one held in esteem by the many adversarial sides who have felt privileged to have their matters accepted for summons and adjudication before it.
The summons, or hazmóne (as it’s called in Yiddish, Ashkenazic Hebrew hazmóno, Israeli hazmaná) is duly signed by the court’s registrar and issued on its well-known letterhead. It is understood that nothing in this case is related to historic differences between the classic Lithuanian (Litvish, Litvak, Misnagdic, Nusakh Ashkenaz, Nusakh Lita) rite and the Chabad-Lubavitch tradition (they differ only slightly but the variations are important to both traditions within Lithuanian Jewish culture). For many years, Rabbi Krinsky has strictly been adhering to the classic Lithuanian rite in public prayer in the Choral Synagogue, and to the Chabad rite for services when at Chabad House on Bokšto Street.
The summons follows yet another unexpected, unprovoked use of armed guards this past Tuesday, 28 February 2017, to prevent Rabbi Krinsky’s entrance to Vilnius’s one surviving functional synagogue, the Choral Synagogue at Pylimo 39 after the blissfully harmonious Friday night and Sabbath services preceding, that were free of any incident. The distasteful scene, yet again, of armed guards barring from the one surviving synagogue in Vilnius the one long-term resident rabbi in Vilnius has jarred Jews and Lithuanians alike. It has particular connotations in post-Holocaust Europe.
There has been a disturbing pattern that started on 28 October 2016, when a few days after harmonious Simchas Torah services, police and armed guards were called to keep out Rabbi Krinsky and his family. Very diverse members of the Lithuanian Jewish community wrote passionate protests, among them Ruta Bloshtein, Leon Kaplan, Zecharia Olitzky and Jacob Piliansky. After international coverage and protests, that order was rescinded on 5 December 2016, after which the community leaders launched a campaign against Rabbi Krinsky’s annual, and widely beloved Grand Menorah Lighting that included an anonymous website blast, a local Lithuanian academic employed for the purpose and an antisemitic journalist who dug up the czarist government’s attacks on Chabad-Lubavitch from the 1790s (!). In the end it was Rabbi Krinsky’s greatest Chanukah success ever, attended by the Israeli, Turkish, Irish and other ambassadors as well as the mayor of Vilnius. On New Year’s Day 2017, Rabbi Krinsky was named one of Defending History’s three People of the Year. On 7 January 2017, as ever with no intervening incidents, and with no warning, the armed guards suddenly, once again kept out the Krinskys and their fellow worshippers; a video from the following day, viewed by some 4,000 on Youtube, has been described as “shocking”.
After some further news coverage in the Forward and Defending History that implicated the “Good Will Foundation” that allocates restitution in the mounting scandal, Rabbi Krinsky received a phone call from a high official of the religious community, on 13 February 2017, warmly asking him to come. And so, everyone again began praying together happily. After further days of harmonious united services, came the lockout last Tuesday, 28 February 2017, which followed a 27 February letter of warning from Mr. Levinas that attached a 25 February letter from the official community’s junior rabbi, Shimshon Daniel Izakson, itself accusing Rabbi Krinsky of “hooliganism” for calling out the page numbers (!) in the different editions of prayerbooks and bibles made available by the synagogue. It is typical of post-Holocaust, post-Soviet countries that many are not familiar with the prayerbook or Bible readings or their language, and for 22 years, Rabbi Krinsky’s “good-humored, soothing” announcements of page numbers to help people keep up has, according to all parties consulted, constituted a major boost to the congregants actually keeping up with the service and Biblical readings. Hence publication of the junior rabbi’s bitter complaint (a spasm of juvenile envy was suspected by some in the official minyan), calling the page-number announcements “hooliganism” has very rapidly entered the canon of living Vilna Yiddish humor. One quip going around, with some measure of hilarity, is that “Ah, but they must be accusing Rabbi Krinsky of purposely calling out the wrong pages!”
Without Rabbi Krinsky and those inspired by him and Rebbetzin Krinsky to attend prayer services, the bulk of the official community’s minyan comprises elderly secular Jews who receive a stipend for attending. Without exception all have enthusiastically attended many events led by the Krinskys at Chabad House at the other end of the old town. When everyone prays together, the achievement is larger than an arithmetic sum of the parts, as there is a real feeling of a real shul, in numbers, in diversity, and in the presence of a contingent that is participating voluntarily and has intimate knowledge of the prayer services.
From afar, people think that Lithuanian Jews (now numbering under 3,000) fight with each other all the time. In fact it has been described as “one of the most friendly, harmonious” communities (small “c”) on the planet, with nearly all the sensational issues in recent years coming from the transformations enacted by the current lay leader chairperson who is often accused of conflict of interest. She is the nation’s top citizenship lawyer for wealthy foreigners seeking EU passports, particularly from South Africa, and sides with selected government and political interests, against obvious Jewish interests in many cases, most famously, her adamant support for the project to have a new national convention center in the middle of Vilna’s old Jewish cemetery, in defiance of all Lithuanian-tradition rabbinic injunctions, vast international protest, and bold voices from within the Lithuanian Jewish community. Ms. Kukliansky’s 2015 statement and Prof. Shnayer Leiman’s reply can serve to sharpen understanding of the debate. That year, she very publicly fired the long standing chief rabbi of eleven years standing, Rabbi Chaim Burshtein, accusing him in the Lithuanian general media of “lying” about the cemetery. Rabbi Burshtein’s statement opposing the convention center project came after the world’s Litvak rabbis had issues their rulings.
Finally, there is another London link to the whole story. The lawyer-leader’s main rabbinic allies in the now sharpening battle over the cemetery are a group of London rabbis who have been exposed by Wikileaks of asking huge fees for their secretive permissions and supervisions in circumstances where no other rabbis would agree to do so (reports in the Jerusalem Post, JTA, and DH.) That group is called the CPJCE (Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe). The most recent coverage is here, DH’s section is here, and our editor’s open letter to the group is here.
An international petition launched by Vilnius native and resident Ruta Bloshtein has achieved over 38,000 signatures to date, including those of Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky and current official chief rabbi Kalev Krelin. In addition to Rabbi Burshtein’s 2015 statement, longtime Vilnius Rabbi S. J. Feffer issued his own ruling. By contrast, the junior rabbi whose letter against Rabbi Krinsky accused him of “hooliganism” (!) for announcing page numbers to help congregants keep up with the service, has posed for majestic photo-ops with the London rabbis implicated in the Vilna Jewish cemetery scandal. The convention center project, with a price tag of 34 million euros, has recently been exposed by Lithuanian watchdogs as thoroughly corrupt. Defending History has kept track of the vast paper trail.
Vilna’s Jewish community may be small and weak. It is markedly not off the radar.
SEE DH’s VILNIUS JEWISH LIFE SECTION