Lithuanian Jews spared by coronavirus celebrate the Vilna Gaon

During the pandemic, the community also marked two important events: the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Vilna Gaon and the 75th anniversary since the end of the Second World War.

Synagogue in Vilnius, Lithuania (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Synagogue in Vilnius, Lithuania
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In a country that has turned to be relatively safe, the Lithuanian Jewish community has been able to go through the pandemic comparatively unscathed, and still managed to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of one of the country’s most well-known figures, Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, or the Vilna Gaon, who was born on April 23, 1720.
Once home of one of the most prominent Jewish communities in the world, which continues to influence Judaism to this day, modern Lithuania has a Jewish population of about 5,000, most of them living in the capital, Vilnius.
As explained by Faina Kukliansky, president of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, during a virtual event organized by the US-based National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, the community has implemented safety measures to safeguard its members very early on when COVID-19 began to spread around Europe.
“Since Purim, we have closed the synagogues and the Jewish institutions, we suspended our organized tours and we encouraged people to keep the regulations,” she said.
She explained that as far as she knows, nobody in the Jewish community got infected.
Together with the two others Baltic republics of Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania is one of the eurozone’s poorest countries.
However, the area was also less affected by the pandemic compared to many other European countries. As reported by Reuters, Lithuania registered just around 1,500 coronavirus cases and 53 deaths out of a population of 2.8 million people. As the infection rate decreased steadily, the restrictive measures to contain the outbreak have been progressively eased up, beginning in late April. On Friday, the three Baltic republics opened their common borders and now allow citizens to travel within the region.
“Our government has been pretty flexible and we were not in a situation of a full shut down,” Kukliansky said.
The country’s only Jewish school, like the rest of the schools in the country, shut down and started operating online.
“We hope that the school will resume working in the normal way in the near future, as the authorities are saying that they are going to reopen kindergartens and schools soon,” Kukliansky said.
In the meantime, Kukliansky explained that the community is doing as much as they can to make life interesting for those stuck at home, especially for the elderly, by organizing virtual events and encouraging people to connect to their website and Facebook page to receive updates.
She highlighted that the community takes care of the needs of about 300 Holocaust survivors, and the efforts to assist them have not ceased.
“I must also say that local leaders have been very active to support their members, not only elderly but also families and everyone else,” she said.
During the pandemic, the community also marked two important events: the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Vilna Gaon and the 75th anniversary since the end of the Second World War.
“For the Vilna Gaon, we had a small ceremony at the cemetery and we organized a more prominent event online,” Kukliansky explained.
“Then on May 8, we paid tribute to the victims of the Holocaust, to those who fought, to the Righteous among the Nations,” she said, adding that they managed to celebrate the ceremony in person with a few relevant personalities, while observing safety regulations.
Recently, the community has experienced some problems also with antisemitism, not specifically related to the coronavirus emergency but more to the anniversary of the end of the war.
“We have had some antisemitic attacks and we asked the help of the authorities to investigate the threats,” Kukliansky said.
She added that she is concerned about the financial crisis, and that Lithuanian Jews are receiving some support from European Jewish institutions.
“Some people lost their jobs and are going through economic difficulties. However, the Jewish community did not furlough anybody. It was important for us to keep all our workers, to maintain our values in this challenging time,” she concluded.