The lone synagogue in Vilnius, Lithuania, sat locked this Rosh Hashanah as a result of a heightening local dispute that is threatening to drag two global Jewish organizations into a confrontation.
Members of Lithuania’s Chabad-Lubavitch community have come to blows with the government-recognized Jewish Community of Lithuania, which is partially funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Both sides have recently released videos showing their head rabbis being physically harassed, allegedly by supporters of the other group. The rabbis from both camps have laid claim to the title of chief rabbi of Lithuania.
Until now, the conflict has largely been discussed in light of the Lithuanian Parliament’s announcement two years ago that it would proceed with restitution of Holocaust-era property to Jews in Lithuania. The head rabbi of the Chabad community, Sholom Ber Krinsky, has accused JDC of exclusively funding the Jewish Community of Lithuania in order to make a claim for the restitution funds.
Both camps say that the ultimate goal of the other side is to gain control of the restitution property. But new allegations about financial improprieties add another dimension to the conflict. JDC is now saying that it shifted its funding to the Jewish Community of Lithuania and away from Chabad because of financial problems with Krinsky.
Until now, JDC has tried to remain on the sidelines of the public dispute in Lithuania. But this week, the head of the organization’s operations in the Baltic states, Andres Spokoiny, entered the fray after JDC came under increased criticism from Chabad.
“JDC is ready to support Rabbi Krinsky on a fair basis,” Spokoiny said, “as we support any Jewish group that applies to us — provided he lives up to the standard of service and accountability that we demand from all our partners. This was not the case in the past, and that was the reason why our support to him was curtailed.”
Spokoiny declined to outline the alleged accounting problems, but the Jewish Community of Lithuania has long charged that there were problems with a payment that the Chabad rabbi, Krinsky, received from the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.
Krinsky said the flap involves a $7,000 grant he received from the Lauder Foundation in June 2002 for general support of the Chabad community and that a few months after receiving the grant, Spokoiny wrote to him explaining that the money was not intended for Krinsky.
Krinsky told the Forward that he has refused to return the money without communication from the Lauder Foundation, and exchanges with JDC officials over the issue have continued into this year.
“They have been using it to besmirch us,” Krinsky said. “This is another devious tactic.”
The CEO of the Lauder Foundation in Hungary, George Ban, said that there had been a $7,000 grant at that time but it had been intended for help in transporting children to a camp in Hungary that is run jointly by the Lauder Foundation and JDC. Ban did not know whether there had been any problems with the money, but he said if there were, Spokoiny, as JDC’s point man in the Baltic states, would have been responsible for dealing with the issue.
JDC funds Jewish communities, including Chabad groups, throughout Eastern Europe, and the organization shows no signs of taking the conflict with Krinsky outside of Lithuania.
“JDC and Chabad work in closer cooperation in many countries in the world, promoting the mutual goals of Jewish renewal,” said Amir Shaviv, JDC’s assistant executive vice president. “None of these places suffer from the friction that characterizes Vilnius.”
The Chabad community in Vilnius, however, is attempting to widen the dispute, with appeals to Jews throughout the world and to the global network of Chabad-Lubavitch communities that controls more than $1 billion.
Advertisements on Jewish Web sites have featured a video of Krinsky being forcibly removed from the Vilnius synagogue. Viewers are directed to the Web site, www.jewishlithuania.com, where they are asked to exert “public grass-roots pressure” on JDC and other American Jewish organizations.
“Ask them why the money raised in their community is being used to fund this travesty of justice,” says a letter signed by Krinsky on the Web site. “I am sure they are not aware of what JDC is doing with the funds raised in their communities.”
Krinsky argues that JDC had been funding the Jewish community in Lithuania for too long before the recent accusations of financial irregularities. Krinsky is the nephew of one of the top officials at Chabad’s world headquarters in New York, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky.
A spokesman for the international body said the activism on this issue is all driven locally and not coordinated from international headquarters, but some Chabad rabbis abroad have begun to get involved in pushing the case against JDC.
The conflict stems from a dispute that is very local in its origin. Krinsky has been fighting for control over Lithuania’s synagogue since the Jewish Community of Lithuania elected and brought in a new rabbi, Chaim Burstein, at the beginning of this year. Krinsky has been active in Lithuanian Jewish life for 10 years, and he argues that Burstein was brought in only after it became clear there would be restitution funds to be claimed. Burstein and others say Chabad is a foreign implant in Lithuania, a historic stronghold of anti-Hasidic sentiment.
Physical fights broke out in the synagogue in May, and so Burstein’s group has kept it locked since. In late July, people affiliated with Chabad pushed their way past guards into the courtyard of the synagogue and began a round-the-clock vigil, which continues to this day. On Rosh Hashanah, Krinsky led services outside in the cold.
The video of Krinsky being dragged and pushed out of the synagogue by four security guards was taken August 25 during one of the few occasions when the synagogue was opened — for a concert.
The Jewish Community of Lithuania argues that Krinsky was removed only after he refused to leave. It has released its own video of its rabbi, Burstein, being harassed outside the synagogue, allegedly by Chabad supporters.