Lithuanian chief rabbi fired over cemetery dispute

Burstein calls community chairwoman ‘dictator’ and demands to know what financial arrangements were made between Jewish representatives and Vilnius authorities

August 17, 2015 01:11
Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania. (photo credit: JEFF BARAK)

Lithuania’s small Jewish community sacked its chief rabbi on Friday amid an acrimonious debate over a government plan to develop a $25 million convention center in the middle of the ancient Snipiskes Cemetery in Vilnius.

The historical graveyard is destroyed, with a disused Soviet- era sports center currently standing on the site. The government’s plan is to convert it into a convention facility.

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“The Vilnius Jewish religious community resolved that since now the term of the contract with [chief rabbi] Chaim Burstein has passed not to renew the contract and to appoint [cantor] Shmuel Yatom to serve the function of rabbi in the interim while a new rabbi is found,” the community said.

The rabbi has been a harsh critic of Lithuanian Jewish community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky, who has been an outspoken proponent of the plan.

Writing on Facebook last week, the Russian-born Israeli rabbi said that the many historical Jewish figures buried in the cemetery would never has expected that the “fate of their bones… would one day depend on the cognitive processes of the head of a Vilna Jewish community whose heart would be filled with the desire to serve the authorities and find honor in their eyes,” the rabbi said, calling the project an “unacceptable desecration.”

Kukliansky was quick to respond, criticizing media reports regarding the controversy and accusing the rabbi of misleading the public “through the presentation of false information,” and stating that he sought to provoke and divide the Lithuanian Jewish community.

The community’s chairwoman said that the proposed development site is “slowly turning into a large weed patch and a venue for graffiti artists and alcoholics.” She has previously asserted that there are no graves under the sports complex due to the depth to which its foundations had been dug.

According to a 2006 US Embassy cable published by Wikileaks, however, the site of the Sports Palace, as the abandoned sports facility is called, “indisputably rests in the middle of the former cemetery.”

Many prominent rabbis of Lithuanian descent around the world have come out against the plan, including senior Israeli ultra-Orthodox leaders such as Shmuel Auerbach, Meir Soloveitchik, Israel Isaac Kalmanovitz and Tzvi Rotberg.

A number of American yeshiva deans, including members of the prominent Kotler and Feinstein rabbinic dynasties, recently issued a joint statement to “protest any use of this sacred site other than for prayer and solemn reflection.”

According to Kukliansky, because the sports complex was designated a heritage site, “no significant changes are possible” and renovation is the only option. The government rightly desires to renovate it and turn it into a center for conferences and cultural events, she said on Friday.

The Snipiskes project, she said, should be seen as “a cause for celebration” and a model for how to “deal with similar challenges of respecting and protecting Jewish cemeteries and the mass graves of Holocaust victims.” The chairwoman claimed that the local Jewish community is squarely behind the effort and accused opponents of using the issue to further their own “personal feuds and grievances.”

Burstein has played an even more “destructive” role than other critics of the project, Kukliansky alleged, accusing the Israeli resident of spending more time abroad on personal business than serving the local Jewish community and contending that he was spreading stories in order to directly attack her.

In a letter to Kukliansky posted on Facebook, Burstein accused her of acting like a dictator and demanded to know what financial arrangements had been made between Jewish representatives and Vilnius.

“Have you received any payments from the Lithuanian government or any other party in connection to permitting or ‘supervising’ the construction of an entertainment center in Snipiskes?” he asked.

Kukliansky and Burstein have previously sparred over the role of the London-based Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, which has provided the rabbinic endorsement necessary for Vilnius’s authorities to proceed with its plans.

While the community chairwoman has cited CPJCE’s role in the project as a reason to support the initiative, Burstein has questioned its legitimacy, pointing to a 2009 leaked diplomatic cable in which the US Embassy in Vilnius stated that a senior member of the organization said that “he estimated the cost of rabbinical supervision of digging for the entire project at 100,000 USD.”

“The CPJCE appears to be striving for maximum flexibility – to the point of accepting exploratory digging in or near the cemetery, a stance that would infuriate some other Jewish groups should they learn of it – in order to bring this dispute to a successful conclusion,” the diplomatic dispatch stated, adding that the “Jewish representatives also said repeatedly that excessive publicity would limit their flexibility to move forward with the plan.”

The Lithuanian Embassy in Tel Aviv declined to comment on the cable, stating that it does not comment on documents released via WikiLeaks.

Asked about Burstein’s letter to Kukliansky, CPJCE director Rabbi Avraham Ginsberg decried what he called “cheap gossip, totally unfounded and completely false [and] a pack of lies,” asserting that his organization had never “benefited one single cent from any government or its representatives in any shape or form for any sort of agreements or negotiations over cemetery issues.”

Aside from two buildings that had already been built on the cemetery site, no further construction has been initiated. Ginsberg added that “we had the privilege to stop further desecration [of the site].”

The Lithuanian government has accepted all of his organization’s halachic requirements, which were presented “in the name of world Jewry,” he added.

“It is very unfortunate and painful the way those individuals run an unclean, hateful and aimless campaign. We will be seeking legal advice to sue and prosecute for slander, while remaining focused on getting our holy task of preserving Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania and all over Europe,” Ginsberg told The Jerusalem Post.

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