VILNIUS—Thirty-something Simonas Gurevičius (Yiddish — Shímen Gurévitsh, English — Simon Gurevich), who was from his earliest teens a Jewish camp counselor, head of the Jewish Students Union in his college years, and then, for years until spring 2015 executive director of the Jewish Community of Lithuania, this morning effectively announced his candidacy for the Community’s chairpersonship in a brief Lithuanian-language Facebook post (reproduced below). Universally known, with love and warmth, to Lithuanian Jews and to many non-Jewish friends who follow Jewish affairs as just Simóntshik, he is a native speaker of Yiddish (very rare for young people here outside the family of Chabad Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky), as well as Lithuanian and Russian, with practiced command of English and growing sophistication in Hebrew, both ancient and modern.
Is the mantle of Litvak leadership passing on to a new generation?
As the right hand person to the late chairperson, Dr. Shimon Alperovich (1928–2014), Simóntshik became the most visible face of Lithuania’s Jewish community, what with his youth (in a community challenged by a majority of members being aged), his mastery of Yiddish, an outgoing inclusive manner featuring warmth to everyday members of the community, and participation in a long array of hallmark events including the battles for restitution and against antisemitism, and memorable events including visits of some of the greatest Jewish figures internationally. But observers over the years report that his forte has been a focus on initiatives and works that encourage the potential, cohesiveness, good humor and success of the actual Jewish people living in today’s Lithuania, as opposed to “photo-ops with the high and mighty.”
Today’s Facebook statement does not mention the chairpersonship, and avoids direct criticism of the present chairperson, eminent EU passport attorney Faina Kukliansky. It does however refer to widely lamented purges that “have left almost no long-standing employees and volunteers.” He was, of course, himself one of those purged in 2015, as part of an alleged tendency to replace Jewish personnel at the Jewish community with Lithuanian PR specialists which has been controversial with the community at large. The Jewish community numbers just under three thousand Jewish citizens nationwide. This contrasts with the quarter million Jews in the pre-Holocaust lands that make up the modern territory of the Lithuanian Republic. There is also a lament in the statement for the alleged “lack of respect for democratic values.”
Most of the statement is positive and future-oriented, however. Simóntshik articulates that “Our goal is that the Jewish Community will once again become one family, notwithstanding the diversity of opinion and beliefs.” It concludes with the following call: “The Community’s principal activities should be directed to the human, social and moral welfare of the community spirit and its development, Jewish culture and its tradition of nurturing. I invite all who believe in these goals to become part of this vision for our community. Let us together implement change.”
Within its first 12 hours on Facebook, Mr. Gurevich’s statement achieved over 25o Facebook likes, 23 shares and 61 comments (in Lithuanian, Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew and English), nearly all from local members of Lithuania’s Jewish community. Among the public figures represented were chief rabbi Kalev Krelin (who added the comment, in Hebrew, “Blessings and success in all your works”); long-time former chief rabbi (2004-2015) Chaim Burshtein (“I will undoubtedly support you and play an active role”); advisor to the mayor of Vilnius Daniel Lupshutz (“I support you and I will help in every way possible”); kosher restaurant founder Alexander Aronchik (“I’ll support and contribute”); Conti (“the Jewish hotel”) owner Simon Tseitlin (Ceitlinas; “Rotation of personnel is always a good thing; I am for it”); Tzvi Kritzer, founder of the Malát memorial project (“Last hope for someone who will put the community’s interests before personal interests”); art photographer Isaiah Urken (“Support Simon!”), and dozens of younger and middle aged everyday members of the community. Facebook is not widely used among the older generation, many of whom have yet to learn of the forthcoming elections.
In the meantime, the Community’s official website, Lzb.lt, a lavishly funded production in three languages (Lithuanian, English, Russian) has yet to even mention the subject of elections, which are constitutionally due this spring. Defending History plans to write to the editor, Ilona Rūkienė, asking for details and inviting equal-time statements from all candidates in Defending History, each to be published on its own page with no extraneous comment on that page, in the interests of fairness.
The community, largely financed by the restitution from the prewar religious Jewish properties of the annihilated Jewish population of Lithuania, is constitutionally bound to respect constitutional and democratic norms. In that spirit it is expected that fair and democratic rules, procedures and dates will imminently appear on the community’s website, well before the next meeting, in April, of the restitution board of the “Good Will Foundation,” as it is known.
Recent crises, most or all self-inflicted, according to critics, have led to international scandals about plans for a convention center in the heart of the old Vilna Jewish cemetery; disbursement of restitution funds for Lithuanian and Israeli government pet projects to the detriment of the survival and growth of the community; a campaign to close down Jewish initiatives in the country not under the community leader’s control; repeated use of police and armed guards to exclude from synagogue services the city’s long-serving resident rabbi, Rabbi Sholom-Ber Krinsky, most recently on 28 February. Europe’s chief rabbinical court, the London Beth Din, recently summoned two leaders of the community, including its chairperson, for a hearing on the matter. Sadly, Lithuania is the only country where government agencies have supported campaigns of prosecutorial defamation and public harassment against Holocaust survivors who joined the anti-Nazi resistance, an effort relaunched this month after a lull of some years, resulting in 2017 in a campaign against an esteemed 95 year old member of the community that took on a bizarre form during March 11th independence day activities last week. On the demographic side of things, the community is challenged by low birth rates, high emigration and assimilation, all the while defying all predictions of imminent disappearance with ever more creative initiatives and diverse contributions to Jewish and wider life.
Lithuanian Jews of many opinions are looking forward to a campaign that is transparent and fair, robust but amicable, and focused on issues and the future, not personalities and the past.