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Across the Former Soviet Union Jew Vs. Jew Conflict Escalates in Lithuania with Closed Shul, Vigil

September 23, 2004
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A dispute that has pitted Jew against Jew in Lithuania may be headed to the courts. Simonas Alperavicius, the president of the Lithuanian Jewish community, told JTA that he was going to file a lawsuit this week to have the authorities remove a group of Jews from the synagogue yard, where they have been holding an around-the-clock vigil in support of one of the candidates for chief rabbi.

The threatened lawsuit is just the latest blow in a months-long power struggle over who controls Jewish life — and Jewish property expected to be returned to the Lithuanian Jewish community — in this former Soviet republic.

The crisis has escalated to the point where North American Jewish officials are being dragged into the dispute.

Chabad Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky and his followers, who are holding the vigil, said they would not abandon their attempts to have the synagogue re-opened months after Alperavicius ordered it shut amid a dispute! over the post of Lithuania’s chief rabbi.

The only synagogue in Vilnius — known before World War II as a center of Jewish scholarship — remained closed for Rosh Hashanah and is likely to remain closed throughout the end of the High Holidays, Alperavicius said.

Chabad says that 400 Jews were “forced to conduct Rosh Hashanah services in the cold” on the footsteps of the shul that remained empty on the holiday, according to a story posted on Chabad-Lubavitch’s Web site.

But critics of Chabad in Vilnius said the claim of 400 people is “nonsense,” mainly because the yard can barely accommodate one half that number.

Meanwhile, those who oppose Krinsky celebrated Rosh Hashanah at a Jewish community hall, which can accommodate 150 people and where a Torah scroll from the synagogue has been stored since it was closed earlier this year.

Chabad also has a separate hall in Vilnius where its followers can meet.

Vilnius’ only shul was closed in May by Alperaviciu! s, who said the step was a temporary measure intended to restrain supp orters of Krinsky, a longtime community rabbi and Chabad emissary, from taking control of what belonged to the entire Jewish community of Vilnius.

Krinsky, a nephew of a prominent leader of the world Chabad organization, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, has until recently been Vilnius’ only resident rabbi since 1994.

As the only Jewish religious authority permanently involved in Jewish life in this country, which is now home to an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 Jews, he has been responsible for most Jewish religious activities in Lithuania.

Opponents of Krinsky say that it was his desire to become Lithuania’s chief rabbi that led Jewish leaders to select a non-Chasidic Orthodox rabbi to serve as chief rabbi of the small Lithuanian community.

The controversy has turned especially nasty in the last few weeks.

Officials with Chabad and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which backs Alperavicius, have confirmed that Chabad has gone to the United Jewish Communiti! es, which funds the JDC, to present Chabad’s point of view.

UJC put out a statement, saying it was concerned about the internal strife going on, and that officials of the JDC are discussing the matter with Chabad.

“We remain in close contact with JDC, in whose judgment we place the highest degree of confidence,” the statement said.

Krinsky and his followers accused Alperavicius of resorting to “unprovoked brutal physical force” against the rabbi, his wife and other members of the Chabad group.

A video posted on a Web site maintained by those who support Krinsky shows private security guards dragging Krinsky and some of his supporters out of the shul.

Alperavicius said the incident was a “provocation” taken by Krinsky and his followers who refused to leave the shul when it was closed after a cantorial concert late last month, compelling private security hired by the community to use force against them.

Krinsky denied this claim.

For its part, the comm! unity has a short video allegedly taken about seven weeks ago showing a new Vilnius rabbi who was brought in to replace Krinsky being attacked by a dozen people — including at least two people wearing Chasidic garb — preventing him from entering the synagogue.

Ever since the crisis began, Krinsky’s supporters have accused the JDC of backing the organized community and Alperavicius.

Those aligned with Krinsky claimed that it was the JDC that paid the salary for Chaim Burshtein, a Russian-born Israeli Orthodox rabbi and former Soviet refusenik, whom local Jewish leaders invited to serve as chief rabbi and take Krinsky’s position at the Vilnius shul.

JDC denies it has paid any salary to Burshtein.

An official statement circulated on Monday by the JDC’s New York office said Lithuanian Jews have found themselves “under aggressive attacks by a person who attempts to coerce them to make him, against their choice, their chief rabbi.”

“The attacks now target the Joint Distribution Committee, demanding that we curb all our relief and! welfare assistance to the community until they accept him as their rabbi.”

The letter continued: “JDC supports the principle that a Jewish community is sovereign to decide on its spiritual leader. As in all Jewish communities in the free world, the members of the Lithuanian community have the right to select the rabbi they desire, rather than a rabbi deciding that he is taking over a community by force,” the JDC statement said.

In the meantime, some local Jewish leaders outside of Vilnius who work with both parties said they got caught in the middle of a community dispute that ultimately hurts Jewish life in their communities.

In an interview with JTA, Hertz Zak, chairman of the Jewish community in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city, called Krinsky “our rabbi” and Alperavicius “our president.”

“I don’t really care who is calling himself chief rabbi,” Zak said. “Krinsky has been helping us all along, Alperavicius is also doing a huge job. This split in the! community is hurting us. It makes non-Jews around us wonder how such things can happen between Jews.”

Zak said despite the row, a recent New Year celebration in his community was attended by both Alperavicius and foreign Chabad students sent by Krinsky.

“As chairman of my community I have always been able to find a common language with both of them. Now I have found myself between the devil and the deep blue sea,” Zak said.

More recently, Krinsky rejected plans for a compromise between himself and Burshtein that some members of the community tried to hammer out with the help of international mediators, including high-positioned Chabad officials from the United States.

The possible scenarios to end the bitter infighting include a plan that would allow both rabbis to share the synagogue, or to keep both rabbis out of the synagogue, thus enabling the community to hire a third, neutral rabbi to take the pulpit.

Krinsky told JTA this week he did not take these proposals seriously because this would have amounted to him giving in t! o “brutal force” that was used against him.

“There is no reason to change the status quo,” said Krinsky, referring to his longtime position as Vilnius’ rabbi. He charged the only ones who want the change are “a few individuals and organizations” who want to gain “control over restitution funds.”

Lithuania is expected to adopt restitution legislation to enable the Vilnius Jewish community to receive dozens of properties seized by the Soviets when Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940.

Each of the sides in the conflict is accusing the other party of trying to benefit from the pending restitution process, an argument especially sensitive for Chabad, which owned little property in traditionally non-Chasidic Lithuania.

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