Iam very concerned about the situation for the last several years at our Lithuanian Jewish Community (LJC). More specifically, about the LJC’s chairperson, whose policies have brought about instability and disunity in the Jewish community. It is a sad paradox, that a non-religious person is responsible for the most acutely religious questions in our community. It is even more unacceptable that a secular person, drawn to mundane and material things, would deign to push around the rabbis in town as if they are pawns on the chess table. Such behavior is totally opposite to Jewish religious standards. Yet for external consumption it is called “a renaissance of religious Judaism.”
I am myself a religious Jew. Therefore I honestly seek to find a way to live a true Jewish life here in Vilna. Unfortunately, when I tried to get connected to the official LJC (whether its “religious” or its “secular” community — in the end, both are ruled by the same person, as we all see; the different names seem to be there just for political convenience), I was highly disappointed by its religious activities. The chairperson proclaims “Renaissance of Judaism” on the official website, yet it is nothing but a soap bubble. There is nothing real there.
I am myself of non-Chasidic Litvak descent, and I follow the classic Litvak rites and texts. Yet I see no real “incompatibility” of any kind between the local Litvak tradition, whom some people call “Misnagdic” (the term’s literal meeting relates to disputes of over two centuries ago) and the local Chabad-Lubavitch here in Lithuania (Chabad Lubavitch are also Litvaks in many senses of the word). The whole bubble (and babble) about the “fierce ideological antagonism” between “Misnagdim and Chasidim” (or, supposedly, between Litvaks and Chabad) — is nothing but a ruse for manipulating the situation vis-a-vis the outside: impressing those who are utterly unaware of actual Jewish culture, including the local population. Yet anyone even remotely familiar with the subject will easily see through this web of deception.
Unfortunately, you can count on your fingers the number of actually religiously observant Jews in Vilnius today. Yet not one of the local (in the sense of “from here”) observant Jews has anything against the work that is being done by the local Chabad Lubavitch rabbi, Sholom Ber Krinsky, for the past 22 years, let alone having anything against him joining the prayers in the Vilna synagogue (the Choral Synagogue at Pylimo 39). To the contrary! He often enables the local minyan to readily have enough people (that is, ten adult Jewish men) for prayers, he enlivens the spirit of Jewishness (Yidishkayt) in the synagogue, and in the synagogue he too follows, in public, the synagogue’s non-Chabad (Nusach Ashkenaz, Litvak, Misnagdic) rite of prayers. But it’s much more than that. Local Jews, including those of the official minyan, are always welcome to join whatever Jewish holiday celebrations are being organized by Chabad, and most of the people enjoy these events immensely! I’m both aggravated and confused by the recently publicized, and quite laughable, pretense that there are some “unsolvable issues” between Chasidim and Misnagdim that prevent praying together. Does the simple truth not matter anymore?
Our community is being purposely divided. And I can see that it’s not being done by Rabbi Krinsky’s hands, but by the recent decisions of LJC’s chairperson, which are then enacted by newly hired rabbis. I have to tell you, those decisions are often truly cynical. And one of the most cynical decisions of all was to agree in the name of the official Jewish community to the building of a new National Convention Center over the oldest Jewish cemetery in Lithuania, despite the public protests expressed by the world’s most famous Litvak rabbis. And the recent decision to close the synagogue “due to plumbing issues” (a pretext to get rid of Rabbi Krinsky and all the worshippers who have come to Jewish prayers through his work) is just as cynical.
It is only thanks to Chabad Lubavitch that it’s actually possible to live an observant Jewish life here in Lithuania. First and foremost, only Chabad has provided a Jewish religious kindergarten, a Jewish religious school, a working kosher mikva, genuine Jewish religious weddings, a chevra kadisha that actually carries out burials according to Jewish law whenever a person “happens” to die (because he and his team live here full time), and a soup kitchen for the poor of different faiths. Yet the secular non-observant Jews who have suddenly been called “Misnagdim” have not had a single religious Jewish wedding in the Vilna synagogue for around a decade now. The very important work of the official community has been in non-religious spheres, including a secular kindergarten and a secular school with a majority of non-Jewish pupils. We are very lucky that genuine religious options have been provided for over two decades by Rabbi Krinsky, for which we should say a collective community thank you.
Cynical decisions have a tendency to be cynically implemented. For example, one of the LJC’s hired rabbis used brute force to throw out one of Rabbi Krinsky’s young sons from the prayer room. And, he did so during the Eve of Shabbos prayers no less. The chairperson chose to show up the next day during the Shabbos meal in the Chabad center, where she was welcomed like any other Jew. She was invited to speak, and she even gave something of a cordial speech there. Yet the very next day she posted an article about “how Rabbi Krinsky is dividing the Jewish community.” And Rabbi Krinsky, his family and worshippers, are still prohibited, by guards and police, from entering the LJC building even for Shabbos prayers.
There is no good reason for this newly “arranged disunity” inside our small, fragile Jewish community.
I would like to conclude with an apt quote from the wonderful Lithuanian philosopher Leonidas Donskis (1962—2016) who passed away suddenly this past September at the age of 54 (a list of some of his writings on Jewish topics is available here).
Machiavellism in Lithuania
Lately in Lithuania, we observe a phenomenon that could be called a caricature of Machiavellism. The definition of a professional and true politician ended up meaning those who are most capable of mechanically seizing and maintaining power, basically the intriguers of parties and palaces, who know very well how to overthrow, isolate or discredit their opponents. We have plenty of such government mechanics, social engineers and power technologists. Many had come out of the famous “universities” of the Komsomol, the Communist party, and the various schools of party and censorship.
They are almost perfect “gray eminences,” but there is something they will never be capable of producing: succession and continuity. Everything sinks down as if into a swamp. Their technique of compromising, removing, or discrediting any “alien elements” (even though they may call it politics) provides a quick result and instant gratification, yet it does not create any viable social and moral order. In fact, they aren’t even trying to create any order. Neither do they have any long-term perspective. Everything is done merely to extend and maintain their own authority and influence.
— Leonidas Donskis
This edited version of the author’s original Lithuanian text was translated by Zecharya Olickij and approved by the author.
Jacob Piliansky’s eyewitness account; Zecharya Olickij’s eyewitness account; Dovid Katz’s article; Faina Kukliansky’s article; Leon Kaplan’s first and second comments; Former Chief Rabbi Chaim Burshtein’s comment; Rabbi Krinsky’s new blog.