VILNIUS—When Lithuania’s official chief rabbi of eleven years’ standing, Rabbi Chaim Burshtein, was dismissed last summer after disagreeing with the government’s plan to erect a national convention center in the heart of Vilna’s old Jewish cemetery, the event caught the attention of both local and international media. It was quietly hoped, both in Vilnius and abroad, that the eventual replacement would be loyal to sacred Jewish causes (see Rabbi Burshtein’s final statement of his tenure in Vilnius), someone who would not dare, for the considerations of a job, betray the letter and spirit of Jewish law, or the living and the deceased actual Jews of Vilna over the centuries. See Prof. Shnayer Leiman’s essay on the subject, our editor’s summary, a satiric Motke Chabad take, and Dr. Bernard Fryshman’s reminder that “Even now, the cemetery contains the bodies of the Chayey Odom and the Be’eyr ha-Goylo among many others.” A second essay by Professor Leiman paves the way for inspiring reconstruction of many of the major historic structures of Lithuania’s foremost Jewish cemetery.
Realists, however, opined that the best realistic outcome would be a new rabbi who would simply “not touch the question with a barge pole,” but would at least not let himself be used as a PR pawn for the commercial and political forces determined to appropriate the old Jewish cemetery for local profit and nationalism (see on this the views of a Lithuanian philosopher, a Latvian-American journalist, and a Christian clergyman, among others).
In the meantime, authoritative rabbinic decrees condemning the “convention center in the cemetery” have come from the top Lithuanian (Litvak) rabbis internationally, from the main Satmar grandrabbi’s court, and such major rabbinic organizations as the Central Rabbinical Congress of the United States and Canada, and individual Litvak rabbis including Vilnius-based Rabbi S. J. Feffer, and others. Daring to confront the lay chairperson of the Jewish community (who is professionally the nation’s top citizenship lawyer for foreigners seeking EU passports), a number of members of the Lithuanian Jewish community have spoken up forcefully, including a Vilna-born Holocaust survivor, a professor of architectural studies, a kashruth supervisor, head of a Jewish community in Kaunas, and the long-time editor (1999-2011) of the official Jewish community’s quadrilingual newspaper.
In the storied history of Litvak-Hasidic relations, the complex tale of one branch of Satmar agreeing in full with the great Litvak rabbis of the generation will no doubt find its place, as will the controversial London group affiliated with the renegade “Aaron” branch of Satmar being open to big-time betrayal of the buried people of the world’s major Litvak cemetery — a national convention center where millions of people, over the years, will enjoy conventions, drink at bars and use toilets surrounded by tens of thousands of Jewish skeletons. The Zalmanite-Aaronite dispute within Satmar hasidic circles, as it applies to the old Vilna Jewish cemetery, can be followed on Defending History’s color-coded list of publications to date.
In the end, two new rabbis were hired. One of them is the dynamic young Samson Daniel Izakson, who has earned high marks for his energy, commitment and outreach, making good use of social media, including Facebook, during his maiden half-year on the job.
“Of those who weep before the cameras at Ponár in the forest, it is verily asked: Will ye yet sell out the graves of those buried at Piramónt within the city?”
But earlier today, alarm bells went off when a Lithuanian government sponsored museum page on Facebook flaunted a series of photographs of Rabbi Izakson together with the chief PR man of the London based CPJCE, the London-based organization exposed by the Jerusalem Post and JTA last year, on the basis of the State Department / Wikileaks evidence, as having in effect accepted payments in return for permissions and supervisions concerning the same old Vilna Jewish cemetery. The old burial ground is known to Vilna Jewry as Piramónt (in the Šnipiškės district of modern Vilnius). The resulting international scandal is set to grow exponentially once building works actually start atop the remains of tens of thousands of Jews of Vilna buried on the site from the late fifteenth to the mid nineteenth centuries.
Today’s published photographs (see below; originals on Facebook) were particularly painful to Holocaust survivors and their families, as the London CPJCE’s PR mastermind managed to produce and disseminate the photos of the two rabbis standing at the heart of Ponár (Paneriai), the mass grave site where some 70,000 Jews of Vilna and its region were brutally murdered by the Nazis and their numerous local volunteer killers. But neither the murdered Jews of Vilna nor the “green” new rabbi pictured near the CPJCE PR maestro in the heart of Ponár can remotely be invoked to justify one of the major desecrations of Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe. Many of Rabbi Izakson’s wellwishers hope he will rapidly now come out with a statement accepting the views of all the major Litvak rabbis in the world, and not allow himself to be a pawn for the commercial and political interests whose future millions from the convention center are an ongoing motivation for the entrapment of ever more Jewish personalities.
Rabbis in Israel and America are making plans to come and lie down in front of the bulldozers when building works start. Where will Rabbi Izakson be?
There is little surprise that the young rabbi has been maneuvered into the series of photographs (above) at the mass grave site Ponár, alongside the same London CPJCE rabbi who masterminded that organization’s trip to Vilnius to be honored by the Prime Minister of Lithuania and his court in April 2015 (below). Needless to say, none of the three rabbis then resident in Vilnius (Rabbis Burshtein, Krinsky, Feffer) were even informed of the event. Is that how the new young rabbi would like to be treated himself?