Is He Beacon for the Jews of Lithuania?

Activist Harley Felstein Leaves Trail of Critics and Questions

Cleaning Up: Reve. Mindaugas Diksaitis, right, a volunteer associated with Harley Felstein, leads a group cleaning up a Jewish cemetery in Lithuania.
courtesy of harley felstein
Cleaning Up: Reve. Mindaugas Diksaitis, right, a volunteer associated with Harley Felstein, leads a group cleaning up a Jewish cemetery in Lithuania.

By Paul Berger

Published July 30, 2012, issue of August 03, 2012.
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Felstein set up the Lithuanian Jewish Heritage Project in the spring of 2011. He launched a sub-group, the Sunflower Project, that fall.

He said the groups’ aims are to improve Lithuanian-Jewish relations through dialogue, youth and cultural exchanges, and restoration of abandoned Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania.

But Ruta Puisyte, assistant director of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in Lithuania’s capital, who lent the institute’s name to Felstein’s early fundraising, told the Forward, “When I spoke with him I understood he has no understanding of Lithuania, no understanding of what has already been done.”

She has since withdrawn the institute’s endorsement of his work.

Franklin Swartz, a Minsk, Belarus, based researcher who has run Jewish projects in Eastern Europe for almost 20 years, said, “He doesn’t know any of the local languages, he doesn’t know Lithuania, he has no academic background.”

Felstein is simply a man who works in a cemetery, Swartz said.

Swartz should know. He is listed as a director of Felstein’s group.

Felstein is a family services counselor at Maryland’s Garden of Remembrance Memorial Park, in Clarksburg. Tall and imposing with an iron handshake that belies his swept back, white hair and bushy, gray-white eyebrows, the 66-year-old Felstein is given to grandiose statements.

When it comes to bringing together Jews and Lithuanians, Felstein said, “I have done more in 18 months than Litvaks and whomever else have done in 21 years in working with the Lithuanian people. The re-bridging has started, and it will continue.”

Felstein said Swartz is no longer associated with his group.


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