Lithuanian Power Struggle Ends in Lubavitch Defeat

By Elli Wohlgelernter

Published March 26, 2004, issue of March 26, 2004.
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JERUSALEM — Lubavitch leaders are crying foul after one of their own was passed up for the newly created post of chief rabbi of Lithuania.

Rabbi Sholom Krinsky, the Chabad emissary who has served in Vilnius for a decade, said he was being ignored by the Association of Jewish Religious Communities of Lithuania because it now wants to be the heir of Holocaust-era property. He provided letters sent by Shimon Alperovitch, chairman of the communal group, in 1994 inviting him to become the rabbi of Lithuania, following the suggestion of Israel’s then-chief rabbi Shlomo Goren. Until now, the Jewish community of Lithuania has not been served by a chief rabbi.

“After 10 years of fulfilling every function of a rabbi that is needed in this community, the only reason that something like that has been done is for the control and monopolization of restitution of property,” Krinsky told the Forward. “It has absolutely nothing to do with Judaism and the rabbinate.”

Rabbi Chaim Burshtein, 38, who has served as one of the chief rabbis of St. Petersburg for the past two years, was picked at a meeting last week of Lithuania’s Jewish association. Alperovitch met informally with the president of Lithuania, Rolandas Paksas, to inform him of the appointment.

Alperovitch responded to Krinsky’s allegations with a similar salvo. “For 10 years that he has been here, he didn’t have any need to be chief rabbi, but now that the restitution issue is on the table, he suddenly wants to be chief rabbi,” said Alperovitch.

The issue of restitution is being played out across the former Soviet Union. Many countries have passed laws declaring that property which belonged to the Jewish community before World War II — or before Communism — be returned to the community. The results are power struggles being played out in many countries as to who will be the heirs of that property.

The current spat in Lithuania echoes similar controversies in other countries in Europe and the former Soviet Union, where two chief rabbis — one of them loyal to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement — often serve dwindling Jewish communities.

Both Burshtein and Krinsky told the Forward of their chance meeting at the Vilnius airport, with each claiming that the other had insulted him unprovoked.

Burshtein, a father of seven, said he would be stationed in Vilnius three weeks a month, with the fourth week spent with his family in Israel.

“I understand the responsibility of my appointment, in terms of the legacy of the Vilna Gaon and in terms of what I am supposed to do for the community in Lithuania,” he said, referring to the preeminent leader of 18th-century Lithuanian Jewry, Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman of Vilna.

The selection of Burshtein follows the recent controversy involving Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger, who wrote a letter to the Lithuanian president endorsing Krinsky as a candidate for chief rabbi. Alperovitch rebuked Metzger in a blistering letter, telling him to stay out of internal Jewish communal affairs.

Metzger met last week with the director and secretary-general of the Conference of European Rabbis, Rabbi Moshe Rose and Rabbi Aba Dunner, to discuss the situation.

Dunner said they told Metzger “in strong terms” that at no time should there ever be a communication with a non-Jewish government concerning the appointment or affairs of the local Jewish community. “It was a very forthright meeting,” Dunner said. “Rabbi Metzger expressed regrets that he caused such a furor, and that it was not his intention to create any kind of rift between the Jewish community in Vilnius and the Chief Rabbinate in Israel.

“In order to ensure that this does not happen in the future, arrangements have been made for regularly scheduled meetings to take place between the Conference of European Rabbis and the Chief Rabbinate so that everyone is on the same page,” Dunner said.

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