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Across the Former Soviet Union Jews Close Down Vilnius Synagogue As Internal Power Struggle Intensif

June 3, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Lithuanian Jews have done what the Communists never dared to do: close the only synagogue in the country’s capital. The synagogue in Vilnius, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last September, was shut last week by Simonas Alperavicius, the community’s president, because of a dispute over the post of chief rabbi of Lithuania’s small Jewish community.

Alperavicius told JTA the step was a temporary measure intended to “show who is the master in the synagogue.”

The closing of the Vilnius synagogue establishes Lithuania as the latest battleground in a power struggle over who controls Jewish life in the former Soviet Union — and who gets to represent Lithuanian Jewry in negotiations with the government for the restitution of Jewish property.

The fight pits those aligned with Chabad-Lubavitch against other Lithuanian Jewish officials. Battles between Chabad and non-Chabad Jews in Russia and Ukraine occasionally have turned nasty, and if last week’s incident is any indication, the situation in Lithuania may be following suit.

Lithuania, which has a population of 3.5 million, is home to some 5,000 to 8,000 Jews.

Alperavicius closed the synagogue after fist-fighting broke out during Shavuot services between two groups of worshipers who wanted to have the other’s rabbi removed from the shul. The service also was interrupted by police, who were called in by one of the groups.

Community members said it is the first time since the Holocaust that the synagogue has been closed.

“The Jewish community considered that the physical safety of worshipers wasn’t guaranteed and decided to close the synagogue,” Alperavicius said in a statement published this week in the community’s newspaper.

Alperavicius supports Lithuania’s recently appointed chief rabbi, Chaim Burstein, an Israeli Orthodox rabbi and former Soviet refusenik. Burstein’s appointment was supported by some international Jewish bodies, including the Conference of European Rabbis.

The other figure claiming the mantle of chief rabbi is Sholom Ber Krinsky, a U.S.-born Chabad rabbi who has been Lithuania’s only resident rabbi since 1994. Krinsky is widely credited for building a network of Jewish institutions in post-Communist Lithuania.

Krinsky also is backed by Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yona Metzger.

Alperavicius and his supporters said they objected to Krinsky’s nomination as chief rabbi because he belongs to a Chasidic group, while Lithuanian Jewry historically has been known as a stronghold of opposition to Chasidism.

Krinsky says Alperavicius simply wants to maintain his power.

After the synagogue was closed, Burstein said, some Krinsky supporters came to his home demanding that the synagogue be reopened. A scuffle resulted, and Burstein said he was grabbed by the neck and suffered a minor injury. Community officials who oppose Krinsky then filed complaints with the police.

Witnesses who support Krinsky said they never lifted a hand against Burstein. Instead, they accused Burstein’s people of resorting to physical violence and committing what one party described as a “spiritual holocaust” against the Jewish community.

“Even in the times of the Communist regime our synagogue was open. It was only closed by the Nazis!” said an unsigned e-mail sent around town.

The power struggle in Vilnius broke out last year when the Alperavicius-led Jewish community nominated Burstein as Lithuania’s chief rabbi just as Krinsky, a longtime local community rabbi, stepped up his effort to become the officially recognized chief rabbi. The post previously was held by a London-based rabbi who paid only occasional visits to this Baltic country.

The battle over the post also affects negotiations between international Jewish groups and the Lithuanian government over the restitution of former Jewish communal property.

Lithuania has not adopted 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. Negotiations between the World Jewish Restitution Organization and the Lithuanian government on the matter have been under way for three years. At stake are at least 100 parcels of property, sources say.

Some say Krinsky wants to become Lithuania’s official chief rabbi to ensure that Chabad gets some property through the restitution process even though Chabad owned little property in Lithuania before 1940. Without Krinsky as an advocate, Chabad would have little chance of getting any property from the government.

For its part, Chabad accuses Alperavicius and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee of removing Krinsky from the board negotiating on Lithuanian Jewry’s behalf.

The JDC says Krinsky was never on the board, and that in any case the World Jewish Restitution Organization is responsible for the board’s composition.

Krinsky said the conflict surrounding the synagogue has been aggravated by the JDC, which he charged pays for Burstein’s salary.

“The Joint is dividing the community,” Krinsky said. “Ten years we had peace and tranquility, we built the infrastructure of Jewish life in Lithuania. The Joint brought divisiveness to our community.”

A JDC official in charge of Lithuania denied the accusations.

“We stand for the right of each community to decide who their leaders and rabbis should be,” said Andres Spokoiny, the Paris-based JDC country director for the Baltic and Scandinavian states.

Spokoiny denied that the JDC is paying Burstein’s salary.

“We are very concerned that the public fight inside the community is damaging the fabric of Jewish life in Vilnius,” Spokoiny said.

As long as the synagogue remains closed, services are being held at two separate locations in town: one in Vilnius’ Chabad center, the other in the community center that houses Alperavicius’ office. Chabad said some people also have met to pray outside the locked synagogue.

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