Rabbinic delegation asks Lithuania to cancel planned conference center in Vilna cemetery

The government plan to develop the complex in the middle of the ancient Snipiskes Cemetery in Vilnius has aroused spirited opposition.

Vilnius, Lithuania (photo credit: JEFF BARAK)
Vilnius, Lithuania
(photo credit: JEFF BARAK)
A delegation of leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis is in Lithuania to ask for the cancellation of government-backed plans to build a convention center in the middle of Vilnius’s old Jewish cemetery.
The government plan to develop the $25 million complex 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 the US and Israel.
The local Jewish community has come out in favor of the plan, which would see the new building replace the Palace of Concerts and Sports built in the middle of the graveyard in 1971. The cemetery was established in the 15th century in Snipiskes (Yiddish: Shnipishok). In Jewish culture, the cemetery was known as Piramont.
The rabbinic delegation that arrived on Tuesday, which included Israeli, American and European rabbis representing the Lithuanian, or non-hassidic branch of ultra-Orthodoxy, met with senior government officials, including First Deputy Chancellor Rimantas Vaitkus and Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Simasius, as well as the leadership of the local Jewish community.
The group included Rabbi Malkiel Kotler, dean of the Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey, and Rabbi Osher Kalmanowitz, the dean of Brooklyn’s Mir Yeshiva, as well as Rabbi Avraham Yaffe Schlesinger of Switzerland, Rabbi David Niederman of the Central Rabbinical Congress of the USA and Canada and Rabbi Chizki Kalmanowitz of the Atra Kadisha in Israel.
“We went there to explain to the government that this is not permissible to do,” Niederman told The Jerusalem Post during a telephone interview on Wednesday.
The delegation “basically relayed to the government that this is not appropriate and we asked the government to nullify these plans,” he continued.
While Lithuanian Jewish leaders have claimed nearly unanimous communal support for the project, Niederman asserted that “some of the locals are very opposed,” adding that he told community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky that “it is totally unacceptable” to build on “that holy site.”
Niederman lashed out at Rabbi Abraham Ginsberg of the London-based Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries, whose rabbinic endorsement has been cited by both Kukliansky and the government in defense of their plans. The committee is working closely with the Jewish community and the government and will supervise the digging. It says its involvement will prevent further desecrations of the site.
Responding to comments made by Ginsberg on Tuesday in which he claimed that he spoke on behalf of Jews around the world and that opponents of the plan have been misinformed, Niederman said that he did not know “who gave him the right to speak for all of world Jewry.”
Citing the tens, maybe even hundreds, of thousands of alumni of Kotler and Kalmanowitz’s yeshivas, as well as the American communities represented by the Central Rabbinical Congress, Niederman said that he could “only say that world Jewry is against it.”
In a 2009 US government cable published by WikiLeaks, a senior representative of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries was cited as stating 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.”
One of the rabbis who signed a letter opposing the plan was Shmuel Auerbach, a prominent Israeli ultra-Orthodox leader.
Ginsberg provided the Post with a copy of a subsequent letter from Auerbach stating that he had not meant to cast aspersions on CPJCE founder Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger and that it is hard to ascertain the facts on the ground in Lithuania from Israel.
This letter, Ginsberg asserted, proves that his opponents’ “claims are completely unfounded and baseless.”
Yishayhu Wein, the editor of the Hapeles newspaper, which is affiliated with Auerbach, painted a very different picture, however, telling the Post that the rabbi is against the desecration of cemeteries but that he is undecided as to which side presents the best option for safeguarding the site’s sanctity.
“Everyone agrees to guard [the cemetery] – the question is how,” Wein said.