Chief Rabbi of Israel Pleads with Lithuania’s President to Abandon Plans for Convention Center on the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery



VILNIUS—Copies began to circulate in recent days of the letter, dated 7 January 2018, from Rabbi David Lau, chief rabbi of Israel and president of the country’s Chief Rabbinic Council, to Lithuania’s president, Dalia Grybauskaitė, concerning plans for a new national convention center in the heart of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt, in today’s Šnipiškės district of the Lithuanian capital. A facsimile follows this report.

The letter calls on authorities in Lithuania to abandon the convention center project because it would “severely damage the remains of the bodies that are found in this holy land.” It also notes that the cemetery, which goes back to the fifteenth or sixteenth century, contains “the remains and bodies of tens of thousands of Jews.” The convention center project has attracted sustained local and international opposition.

However, the chief rabbi was apparently misinformed about the building plan for the project, which is not to demolish the extant building, the former Soviet-era Sports Palace, but rather to convert it into the new conference center and to build on to it a large annex where many thousands would clap and cheer, drink at bars and flush toilets, surrounded by remains of Vilna Jewry on all sides. The scheme is indeed opposed by the world’s major Litvak rabbis, other major rabbinic organizations, numerous members of the Lithuanian Jewish community, heads of the Vilnius and Kaunas communities, the eminent Vilna Gaon scholar Rabbi S.J. Feffer, the former chief rabbi of Lithuania, Chaim Burshtein (who was fired for speaking out on the subject) and writers who include a protestant minister, a Catholic philosopher, a Latvian journalist, and a French human rights activist. Both the current rabbi, Rabbi Sholom-Ber Krinsky, and frequent visiting rabbi Rabbi Kalev Krelin were among the first to sign the petition launched by Vilnius native Ruta Bloshtein, which has achieved 42,000 signatures to date. The one  group of rabbis in London invoked by the government for legitimization, a splinter Satmar hasidic sect, has been exposed in the media for taking secret payments in return for their “permissions” in situations when all other rabbis oppose the desecration of a cemetery.

In 2017 alone, delegations met with the Lithuanian ambassadors to the United States, and to Israel, and with Vilnius’s mayor during his summer visit to New York City. A major video appeal featured Professor Shnayer (Sid) Leiman and Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Then, last summer, twelve United States congressmen wrote a powerful letter to Lithuania’s leaders.

Whether or not a factual addendum or correction is issued by the Israeli chief rabbi’s office (on the “demolish” vs. “renovate” question), it is evident that he joins the ranks of rabbis all over the world in opposing the rise of a convention center in the heart of the old Vilna Jewish cemetery.

A facsimile of the letter follows:

Rabbi Lau on Piramont

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