MOSCOW (Oct. 7)
Few Jewish groups have been more involved in the renewal of Jewish communal life in the former Soviet Union than the Lubavitch movement.
But when the Chasidic organization recently opened a new Jewish center in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, some observers found historical irony in the event.
This was because Vilnius, formerly known as Vilna, was known to generations of Eastern European Jews not only as a major center of Jewish learning, but also as the stronghold of opposition to Chasidism.
Indeed, it was the Vilna Gaon, the renowned commentator on the Talmud and the Torah, who stirred up controversy with his stiff opposition to the burgeoning Chasidic movement during the late 18th century.
To add to the irony, the new center opened a week after Lithuania’s Jews commemorated in mid-September the 200th anniversary of the passing of the Gaon.
But for Rabbi Shalom Ber Krinsky, who directs Lubavitch activities in Lithuania, there is little irony.
“The argument was over a long time ago,” he said of the disagreements between Chasidic Jews and their opponents.
Krinsky’s Lubavitch great-grandfather left Vilna for the United States in the late 19th century — which serves as proof, Krinsky said, that by that time the “Lubavitch tradition existed in Vilna as well.”
Krinsky also pointed out that the Lubavitch movement established its first yeshiva in Vilna in the 1920s.
Like other Jewish institutions that served the prewar Vilna community of 60,000, it was destroyed during the Holocaust.
Before the center opened last week, the community that boasted dozens of synagogues before the war had a single Jewish house of worship that survived the Nazi occupation and the subsequent Communist regime.
Krinsky, a 29-year-old native of Boston, said elderly Jews constitute the large majority of those who currently attend services.
But he hopes that the new center’s synagogue and other programs would attract younger participants.
“We tailor much of our programming to singles and young families, most of whom are discovering and tasting their heritage for the first time,” said Krinsky, who settled in Vilnius three years ago and is the only rabbi permanently based in the Lithuanian capital.
“Youth is the future of this community, and we feel it is important for them to incorporate some of the greatness, the spirit of Jewish Vilna into their lives.”
Vilnius’ younger generation of Jews will not be the only ones to benefit from the new center.
The previous Lubavitch-operated soup kitchen served free hot meals to 100 elderly and needy Jews — many of them Holocaust survivors.
The bigger kitchen in the new center may help increase the number of meals served, Krinsky said.
Representatives of the Jewish community and the Lithuanian government participated in last month’s ceremonies marking the opening of the 10,000 square-foot facility in the city once referred to as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.”
The latest in the chain of community centers opened by the worldwide Lubavitch movement to foster Jewish revival in the former Soviet Union, the center will also house the lower grades of a Lubavitch day school, a Sunday school and an evening yeshiva.
The premises also boast a library, children’s game room, a dining room and a computer room that will have a direct Internet connection.
Formerly a run-down apartment house, the building was purchased by the Lubavitch movement through the bequest of philanthropist Joseph Rohr of Nice, France, in whose memory the building was dedicated.
Emmanuel Zingeris, the only Jewish member of Lithuanian Parliament, said at the dedication ceremonies that the center offered a future of hope to a community that had a glorious past.
“The new center is very important to a community that is coming to life, that is not just memorializing its dead, but is also rebuilding Jewish life,” he said.