With crucial help from Lithuania’s ambassador to Washington, a Maryland cemetery employee has managed to position himself as a key mediator between Jews and the Lithuanian government in a little more than one year.
Harley Felstein launched his new organization, the Lithuanian Jewish Heritage Project, at a party hosted by Ambassador Zygimantas Pavilionis at the Lithuanian Embassy in April 2011. By that fall, Felstein was invited to the Lithuanian Embassy once again, this time to participate in a roundtable discussion on Lithuanian-Jewish relations that included senior Lithuanian government officials, top Jewish communal leaders and America’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, Hannah Rosenthal.
Pavilionis also features prominently on Felstein’s marketing materials. A letter from the ambassador, printed on Lithuanian Embassy letterhead, accompanies a request for advertising and sponsorship related to fundraising concerts Felstein is planning for New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington this September.
But Felstein has no academic or scholarly expertise on Lithuania and has never been to the country. Nor does he speak Lithuanian or Yiddish, the native language of Lithuania’s Jewish Diaspora, many of whose members are Holocaust survivors.
Some of those Lithuanian Jews, known as Litvaks, and figures in Lithuania’s own small, surviving Jewish community are joining others in criticizing Felstein for generating anger and division rather than good will. Many view as deeply wrongheaded Felstein’s solicitous stance toward a government that even today, they say, has failed to come to terms with Lithuania’s conduct during the Holocaust.
There are critics, too, who question Felstein’s financial management of his not-for-profit groups, his own past financial history and key achievements he claims both here and in Lithuania.
Today, these critics are putting the spotlight on a rising, self-described grassroots activist who says that all he ever sought to do was help.
In an interview at the Forward’s offices on June 21, Felstein explained that his passion to restore Lithuanian-Jewish relations was born after his teenage son returned from a school trip to Lithuania in 2010.
“What struck me was the condition of the cemeteries,” Felstein said. “I said, ‘We’ve got to look into this more to find out why the cemeteries are in this shape.’”