TULSA, Okla. (JTA) — The warmth emanating from the conference room of the Conti Hotel in Vilnius stood in stark contrast to the damp weather outside. Just steps away from the site of the Vilnius Ghetto, remnants of which can still be found, more than 30 young Jewish activists from across Europe were miraculously networking, studying and sharing their dreams for the Jewish future.
As I listened to their conversations, it quickly became clear why the conference organizers had decided to hold this meeting in Lithuania: There is no place in the world quite like Vilnius, once home to one of the largest and most respected Jewish communities in the world.
Vilnius in the 1700s had approximately 110 synagogues and 10 houses of study (yeshivot). It was home to the great rabbinic sage, Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, the famous Gaon of Vilnius, and Yiddish was the lingua franca. As a center of Jewish life, intellectualism and culture, it was known as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania."
By the time World War II started, approximately 250,000 Jews were living in Lithuania — more than 50 percent of the population of Vilnius was said to be Jewish.
All that changed, however, with the invasion of the Nazis in 1941. Some 180,000 Lithuanian Jews were murdered within months of the country’s fall to the Nazis. Before the nightmare was over, more than 95 percent of this once-thriving Jewish community was slaughtered. Properties were confiscated (unlike in other European countries, they have yet to be returned to the Lithuanian Jewish community, despite international appeals), synagogues destroyed and cemeteries desecrated (with the tombstones used for other purposes, including the building of steps and sidewalks).
Today, Lithuania and its Jewish community of 3,500 again are under pressure, albeit of a significantly different kind. They are suffering an economic "double whammy." A darling of investors as a leading emerging market for the past 10 to 15 years, it turns out that most of the growth Lithuania was experiencing was a result of the global real estate bubble. So when that bubble popped, so did Lithuania.
Real estate values have tumbled, banks are in trouble, credit is unavailable and the economy is struggling.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the cost of electricity and heat is about to increase by 30-40 percent at the same time as people are being laid off, salaries are being frozen or cut, and state pensions are being reduced or eliminated.
When Lithuania joined the European Union, it agreed to shut down its Ignalina nuclear power plant, a facility susceptible to the same kind of problem experienced in Chernobyl. With the close of the plant on Dec. 31, much more expensive sources of power are needed now to meet the energy requirements of the country.
Is the future of Lithuanian Jewry as bleak as the skies over Vilnius on the darkest of days? Not by a long shot.
In a story now playing out all across Europe, out of the ashes and despite the current economic challenges, Jewish life in Vilnius is slowly re-emerging.
The president of the community is Dr. Simon Alperavitchius, a white-haired elder for whom Yiddish remains his mother tongue. His executive director is a charismatic 28-year-old named Simon Gurevichius, who after graduating from university at the top of his class decided that his career could wait while his beloved Jewish people could not. Simon has molded a community in his image: young, energetic and optimistic.
Under the leadership of the two Simons, Vilnius has developed a thriving kindergarten with 40 pupils this year and 80 in 2011, if the necessary space can be found and funded. There is also a K-12 day school, among the best academic institutions of its kind in Vilnius, in need of space and funds to be able to admit the students it now must wait-list.
Informal Jewish educational opportunities in Vilnius are equally impressive.
But what the future holds for this community is unclear. Without the continued assistance of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, as well as the infusion of funds and expertise from other sources, it will be very difficult for Lithuanian Jewry to keep its emerging young leaders active and engaged. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that philanthropists can make a big difference in Vilnius’ Jewish life for relatively small sums. The key institutions are in place, the community is motivated and the leadership is as committed today as it was when the Israeli poet Abba Kovner, himself a leader of the Jewish partisans in the Vilnius Ghetto, vowed "to fight rather than go to the slaughter like sheep."
Left to its own devices, Lithuanian Jewry has a chance to bring itself back to life in ways virtually no one believed possible just a few years ago. With the help of others, the future of this once-dominant and resilient center of Jewish life can be assured.
(Sanford R. Cardin is president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.)