The Lithuanian government will coordinate with the Jewish community regarding the construction of a sports complex in the middle of a historic Jewish cemetery in Vilnius, a representative of Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius has promised.
This week the London-based Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, a hassidic organization that has provided the project with rabbinical approval, released the letter by First Deputy Chancellor of the Government Rimantas Vaitkus in response to harsh criticism by some Jewish organizations.
The government plan to develop a $25 million convention center in the middle of the ancient Snipiskes Cemetery in Vilnius has aroused spirited opposition, garnering condemnations from the Simon Wiesenthal Center and leaders of Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox communities in both the US and Israel.
The local Jewish community has come out in favor of the plan, which would see the new building replace a Soviet-era stadium built in the middle of the graveyard.
Snipiskes “must be given proper perpetuation, with the involvement of you and the Jewish community of Lithuania,” Vaitkus wrote the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries, pledging adherence to guidelines agreed upon between the rabbis and the government in 2009.
Following the registration of the site as public property, consultations with the committee and local community representatives will immediately commence, he continued, adding that a planned parking lot will be built outside of the cemetery grounds.
“We wish to reassure you that no works will be undertaken without the knowledge of or consent by you [the committee] or the Jewish Community of Lithuania, so that the future congress center may operate while ensuring proper respect for the sanctity of the cemetery.”
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The Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries lobbied hard to preserve the site, securing the “comprehensive preservation and protection of the remainder of the Snipiskes Jewish cemetery that resulted in scrapping the planned development on the cemetery grounds, the removal of the parking lot and ensuring that no digging or construction would take place within the boundaries of the cemetery,” executive director Rabbi Abraham Ginsberg said.
The government “will comply with the conditions and requirements of Jewish law and tradition” as interpreted by the committee, he said, asserting that he was speaking “on behalf of world Jewry.”
“Any reports, rumors and speculation to the contrary, are totally untrue, baseless and unfounded,” he added.
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.”
Earlier this month the local community fired its chief rabbi Chaim Burshtein over his outspoken opposition to the project and to the actions of community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky, whom he described as a “dictator.”
In an open letter posted on Facebook, Burshtein asked Kukliansky if she had received any payments for okaying the project, citing a leaked American diplomatic cable in which a senior member of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries was quoted as saying 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.”
Asked about his claim to speak for world Jewry, Ginsberg said that he had spoken to several of the American rabbis who came out against the plan and hinted that a statement of support would be forthcoming.
They were “presented with lies,” he alleged, adding that he had yet “to meet one rabbi who is clearly informed of the true facts of what is going on the ground there who opposes the whole plan.”
Both the government and CPJCE letters are “another case of cover-up and camouflage by the partners in the crime of the desecration of the ancient Vilna Jewish cemetery,” Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center accused.
“Both the government and the Jewish community have based their entire project on a stamp of approval by a group of rabbis who in effect represent only themselves, and whose decision on this issue has been unequivocally denounced by a far larger number of leading rabbinic authorities whose stature in the ultra-Orthodox world is far greater.
The basic question here is the sanctity of cemeteries vs financial interests,” Zuroff said.
Dovid Katz, a Vilnius-based historian who has been vocal in opposing the project, went even further.
“As for this document, it is just another utterly useless repetition that those building the $25 million convention center will continue to get their ‘permissions and blessings’ from this morally corrupt group of London graveyard-traders who are ignoring the unanimous view of all other rabbis including the greatest living exemplars of Lithuanian rabbinical learning,” he said.
It is a shame to build a convention center where “people will cheer, clap, sing, use bars and toilets surrounded by thousands of the graves of over a half millennium
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