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June 11, 2004

Vilna Community Calls For Help With Chabad

A June 4 article on the Lithuanian chief rabbinate misses the most important point of the current crisis (“Rabbinical Turf Fight in Lithuania Spills From Shul Onto Front Pages”).

This is not just a turf fight between two rabbis, nor is it solely a struggle between Chabad and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

This is nothing less than the fight of a small community to exercise its sovereign rights to choose its rabbis and spiritual leaders. The Jewish community here in Lithuania — small, poor and isolated — is resisting being bullied and overpowered by Chabad Lubavitch, a movement that can muster enormous political and financial support. It is an unequal, unfair fight.

The Forward fails to mention that the Jewish community of Lithuania has built a thriving Jewish life in this historic Jewish land. Our welfare services serve 1,500 needy Holocaust survivors — 10 times more than what Rabbi Sholom Krinsky, Chabad’s pick for chief rabbi, claims to serve. Our school, which was declared the best school in the city, has more than 250 students. Our Jewish Community Center provides innovative programs for hundreds of Jewish families. Our institutions are transparent, open and democratic. All this was achieved amid enormous economic and social hardship.

The Lithuanian Jewish Community, through legal and legitimate means, has elected Rabbi Chaim Burshtein to serve as its chief rabbi. Krinsky, on the other hand, wants to force himself upon the community through violence, slander and intimidation. I was among the eyewitnesses to the shameful events in the Vilnius synagogue, and I can attest to how they were initiated by Krinsky’s followers.

There seems to be a pattern, all over Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, of Chabad Lubavitch trying to take over the Jewish communities. We want the Jewish world to realize that Lithuania is an emblematic case. There is much more at stake than a rabbinical position in a small town. If our small community is violated and overpowered with impunity by Chabad, others communities will follow.

The Jewish world must stand up to defend the right of our community. We ask for nothing but the same rights that every Jewish community in the world enjoys: to live our Judaism according to our own beliefs and convictions. What is happening in Vilna is a fight for freedom and for the basic rights of every Jewish community.

The Jewish people need to understand that Vilna is the barricade where the freedom and independence of all Eastern European communities are being defended.

Simon Gurevichius

President, Union of Youth and Students

Board Member, Lithuanian Jewish Community

Vilna, Lithuania

Have Faith in Bush’s Integrity and Decency

Let me see if I get the June 4 article on Mortimer Zuckerman’s message to Israel: President Bush is having problems in Iraq so we need to destroy 21 Jewish towns, tear down dozens of synagogues and close down innumerable yeshivot, high schools, elementary schools and kindergartens in preparation for driving more than 8,000 Jews from their homes — in order to make the American president look good with the Arabs (“U.S. Groups Warn Israel on Failure to Pull Out”). And if we don’t do this, the man who is supposed to be the best friend Israel ever had will turn on us and sell us out to our enemies.

First, it is a bad idea, to say the least, to set the precedent of basing the decision to destroy Jewish communities on whether or not it makes foreign heads of state look good. You really give people the wrong idea about what their future expectations should be when you do something like that.

Second, the alleged administration response to any potential Israeli refusal to destroy the towns and homes of its citizens is only conjecture and not certainty.

Third, elected officials in America need Jewish votes, money and volunteers as much as we need them, and I can assure you, the Bush administration is as concerned about risking our support as we are concerned about risking theirs.

Finally, let’s try to have a little more faith in the integrity and human decency of Bush, shall we? I like to think he is made of a little bit better stuff than the article wants to suggest.

Eric Leibman

Seattle, Wash.

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