Vilnius Old Jewish Cemetery dispute seems involved in chief rabbi’s dismissal

 

Map of the WW2 Vilnius ghetto on a wall in the city. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Map of the WW2 Vilnius ghetto on a wall in the city. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Jewish community in Vilnius will not extend the contract of its chief rabbi, Chaim Burshtein, and Burshtein’s public opposition to government construction on the site of the city’s Snipiskes Old Jewish Cemetery, which the Jewish community supports, appears to be part of the reason.

After an extraordinary general meeting on August 14, the Vilnius Jewish Religious Community issued a statement saying that “since now the term of the contract with Chaim Burstein has passed,” it had resolved “not to renew the contract and to appoint Shmuel Yatom to serve the function of rabbi in the interim while a new rabbi is found.”

No reason was given for this in the statement, which was signed by Shmuel Lewin, the chair of the Vilnius Jewish Community.

But Burshtein, an Israeli who has commuted to serve as the community’s chief rabbi for 11 years, has sharply criticized the chair of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, Faina Kukliansky — including in a statement last week that slammed her support of a multi-million dollar state project to create a convention center on the site of an abandoned Soviet-era sports palace that was built decades ago atop part of Vilnius’s old Snipiskes Jewish cemetery.   Founded in the 15th century, the cemetery was closed in 1830 and demolished by the communist authorities in the late 1940s.

Burshtein wrote:

Today, in the 21st century, in accordance with the standards of culture and tolerance of the European Union, a convention and congress center must not and cannot be built on Jewish bones or surrounded by Jewish bones.

[…] Unfortunately, the current chairman of the Jewish community has agreed with state and business developers’ plans to construct the convention and congress center. Both by Jewish law (Halacha), and by secular codes of law, this is considered to be unacceptable desecration of a graveyard of human beings.

Kukliansky issued a statement of her own responding to Burshtein’s criticism, stating:

[T]he site of the former Snipiskes Cemetery and the graves beneath must be protected. On this matter, the government of Lithuania, the Lithuanian Jewish Community which I chair, and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE) which is Europe’s foremost halachic authority on cemeteries all agree.

Attention is now focused on the abandoned former Soviet Sports Palace, which partially sits on the cemetery grounds and in its current condition is mostly a gathering place for graffiti artists and alcoholics. The government rightly wants to renovate the building and turn it into a center for conferences and cultural events. Because the building itself has been designated an architectural heritage site, no significant structural changes are possible, but the interior will be renovated.  The surrounding area will be maintained as a memorial park with inscriptions that describe some of the famous people who were buried here.

The controversy over the cemetery has been simmering for months, with the project generating both support and opposition from rabbis and organizations as well as individuals.

Read an article in the Jerusalem Post summarizing the case

You can see various statements for and against the project at:

The web site of the Jewish community of Lithuania

Dovid Katz’s Defending History web site

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