Here in the former home of the Vilna Gaon, the historic center of the anti-Chasidic Litvak movement, two rabbis have been battling for three years for control of the city’s lone synagogue.
Now one of them — Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky, a Chabad-Lubavitcher who arrived in 1994 to serve as the community’s rabbi — not only has lost control of the synagogue but is literally scrambling to keep a roof over his and his family’s head.
Krinsky may soon become the only Chabad emissary among the more than 200 in the former Soviet Union to be evicted from his Chabad House premises for non-payment of rent. Krinsky once owned the property but was forced to sell to satisfy his debts.
“The owner was fairly patient,” said a U.S. official familiar with the situation. “Even if Rabbi Krinsky comes up with the necessary funding, I don’t think the owner is interested. It’s too late.”
This is the latest twist in the power struggle between those in the Vilnius Jewish community who support Krinsky and backers of Rabbi Chaim Burshtein, a Litvak rabbi who came to the community in 2004 and shares its traditions and customs.
At stake in the power struggle is which side will benefit from the long-awaited restitution of Jewish communal property, which in Lithuania eventually will include at least 200 buildings and an estimated $60 million in compensation for property that cannot be returned.
The proceeds could become the lifeblood for local Jewish institutions that now only dream of weaning themselves from their dependence on foreign donors.
Krinsky’s eviction is expected in June — the same month the Lithuanian government is expected to introduce to parliament a revised restitution law. The new law will broaden the definition of “religious” communal property to more appropriately cover what had been owned by Jewish communities.
The pending eviction and restitution issues are not unrelated.
Krin! sky, whi le acknowledging that he “has made mistakes along the way,” insists that “no one had a problem with us until restitution came along. Give us what we objectively deserve: fair representation in the restitution equation and a fair share of whatever monies are given out.”
Krinsky blames his troubles on the anti-Chabad bias of local and international Jewish groups that he says are trying to shut him out of the restitution process. In particular he faults the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which operates social and welfare services in virtually all the same areas of the former Soviet Union as Chabad.
Andres Spokoiny, the JDC’s Paris-based country director for Lithuania, dismissed Krinsky’s allegation “as nonsense,” noting his agency’s “excellent cooperation with Chabad all over the world.”
Krinsky’s critics, in turn, accuse him of trying to dominate the restitution process as well as Lithuanian religious life.
“What Rabbi Krinsky wants is to be at the front of restitution instead of being a part of it,” said Simonas Alperavicius, chairman of the Jewish Community of Lithuania. “But he cannot be more equal than others.”
Vilnius, or Vilna, as it was known to world Jewry before World War II, boasted 100 synagogues plus related institutions, virtually all of them controlled by the Litvak community. The Chasidic presence was minor by comparison.
Lithuania’s quarter-million Jews were nearly wiped out in the Holocaust. They were further crippled by Soviet repression, including state seizure and nationalization of their religious and communal institutions. Only the Taharot Ha-Kodesh Synagogue in Vilnius remained open.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. government made the return of Jewish property a precondition for admission to NATO and other Western institutions. Lithuania joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union in 2004.
Soon after Lithuanian independence,! the re- emerging Jewish community in Vilnius began looking for a rabbi.
Sholom Ber Krinsky answered the call, arriving in 1994. He is a nephew of Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a key leader of Chabad-Lubavitch’s international operations who was secretary to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, for 40 years.
Some speculate that Chabad headquarters did not send Krinsky as an official emissary, but Chabad spokesman Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin said that is untrue.
Krinsky said he was invited by the local community, which Alperavicius and others confirm. But they also suggest that invitations can be rescinded.
By all accounts, Krinsky has worked exhaustively to rebuild Jewish life. He opened a day school, runs a soup kitchen, teaches classes and organizes activities throughout the countryside.
Jewish activists acknowledge his efforts, but challenge almost every success Krinsky claims, from how many people show up at his events to the quality of his soup kitchen and day school.
Meanwhile, local leaders continued to look for a rabbi, a Litvak like them. They found Burshtein, a St. Petersburg native and former refusenik who estimates that he was detained by the KGB some 40 times before immigrating to Israel.
Burshtein was elected chief rabbi by leaders of the country’s religious Jewish communities. His installation at the synagogue sparked an eruption, beginning with fisticuffs in the shul between pro-Krinsky and pro-Burshtein factions during Shavuot services in 2004. The fracas was covered extensively by the local and foreign media.
Burshtein later reportedly was roughed up by Krinsky supporters. Krinsky and his followers were barred from the synagogue; they countered by holding vigils in the courtyard for months.
The community took Krinsky to court, the rabbi retreated to his Chabad center and the synagogue was closed for more than a year.
It reopened in August 2005, and morning and evening services are now held daily — without Krinsky, who presides over his own services in a first-floor room at the Chabad center that after two years he still describes as “temporary.”
Krinsky has hinted that the fight isn’t over.
“Our community here is every Jew,” he told JTA, “and this community absolutely doesn’t need two synagogues.”
Krinsky, who is described by foes as “very charming, very sophisticated” as well as “very extreme, very unstable,” seems to be operating with little support from Chabad.
While Shmotkin says there is no talk at Chabad headquarters of replacing him, the Moscow-based Federation of Jewish Communities, an umbrella for Chabad-affiliated efforts across the former Soviet Union, isn’t going to bat for him publicly.
The federation’s Web site lists Krinsky and his activities as its recognized community in Lithuania. But asked whether he supported Krinsky, Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, the federation’s executive director, responded, “We only partner with him in supporting his day school.”
Californa-based Chabad Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie was more forthcoming, saying Krinsky “has had some financial challenges and made some poor decisions along the way, but if you look at him in his totality, it’s astonishing how much one man has been able to accomplish.”
Eliezrie added that if everyone involved “came together at a table, we probably could resolve this problem.”
Krinsky says he is pinning his hopes on restitution. The Vilnius Jewish community offered him a seat at the negotiating table, but he insisted on three. He is now outside the process.
The plan is that once a restitution law is passed, neither the properties nor the cash will be apportioned. Jewish religious, cultural, educational and welfare! organiz ations will have to apply to a foundation, proposing projects and making their case for support.
Krinsky will have to compete with the others.
“I’ve said repeatedly that I think Chabad would merit support, just as other institutions would,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee, who leads the international team negotiating restitution with the Lithuanian government. “However, I don’t think that’s what Rabbi Krinsky is speaking of. He believes he’s the only bona fide religious Jewish organization in Lithuania.”
Krinsky has tried to circumvent the process. Several months ago he approached the Lithuanian Ministry of Health requesting the return of a former communal property. But he was rebuffed.
As a U.S. citizen, he approached the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius for help in obtaining a state-owned music academy in the desirable Old Town. According to the U.S. official familiar with the situation, the embassy sent a letter to the government supporting Krinsky, but also asked Krinsky and local leaders to bury the hatchet.
“We’ve seen a lot of quotes in the press where some people from the government or on its periphery have said the Jewish community can’t even agree on restitution, so how can we make an agreement,” the official said. “We’ve told them we don’t want that as an excuse to not go forward.”
In April, Krinsky met with local Jewish leaders. Afterward they sent him a letter outlining conditions for breaking the stalemate. Among them: Krinsky must publicly acknowledge the community’s ownership of the synagogue and its choice of chief rabbi; cease referring to himself as “chief rabbi”; and submit to “a sound, open and transparent financial management.”
Krinsky told JTA that he plans to respond to the letter soon.
Meanwhile, the threatened eviction nears for Krinsky, his wife and the seven of his eight children, aged 1 to 10, who live with him. And community leaders worry that more trouble lies ahead.
“If he accepts the conditions in our letter, then for sure peace is possible,” said Simonas Gurevicius, executive director of the Jewish Community of Lithuania. “But if someone doesn’t want peace with you, how can you find it?”