Lithuanian Jewish Community Cuts ties to Controversial Cemetery Project

The unwillingness of the Lithuanian Jewish community to support a callous, Anti-Semitic initiative, has effectively frozen the project in its tracks.

The Shnipishok (Šnipiškės) Jewish cemetery in Vilnius, has been a target for desecration since its founding over 500 years ago. It is an internationally renowned cemetery, the initial burial ground of the legendary Torah scholar, the Vilna Gaon and the resting place to over 50,000 Jewish graves. During the post-Nazi era of Soviet governance, tombstones from the cemetery were harvested for Russian construction sites. Due to the shortage of building materials, the Jewish cemetery became a quarry to mine marble and high quality stone. These were the grave robbers of the twentieth century.

In the 1960s the Soviet regime built the Vilnius Concert and Sports Hall (Sport Palace), ruthlessly desecrating hundreds of graves. In 2004 the edifice was closed and abandoned.

Between 2005 and 2008, after Lithuania’s independence, the government constructed a set of apartment buildings on the cemetery. In that process hundreds of skeletal remains were desecrated. The world shook and protested. In 2008 the US Senate passed a resolution condemning the action of the Lithuanian government.

In 2009, the Lithuanian Government came to an agreement with the Committee for Protecting Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE) and the Lithuanian Jewish community, defining several protective zones on the cemetery. The agreement was met with mixed sentiments. Many believed that the provisions didn’t offer sufficient protection to Jewish cultural and heritage considerations. Savvy onlookers were concerned the terms of the agreement would be manipulated and that the cemetery could be desecrated.

In 2015 Lithuanian Seimas passed a law (resolution 597), facilitating the state-owned Turto bankas acquisition of the Sports Palace and paving the way for the development of the conference center.

The 2015 resolution states: “Vilnius Concert and Sports Hall Reconstruction and Adaptation Project for Congresses, Conferences and Cultural Events (hereinafter referred to as the Vilnius Congress Center Project) as a state important project aimed at establishing a new congress, conference and cultural event center, promoting and developing business tourism, in order to increase Lithuania’s awareness and competitiveness of the tourism sector and to create conditions for attracting investments, taking into account the results of the Vilnius Congress Center (VCC) project and their indicators, implementation deadlines and measures specified in the Annex to this Resolution.”

The VCC conference center initiative was supported by Ms. Faina Kukliansky, the Chair of the Lithuanian Jewish Community together with the CPJCE who vowed to manage its development within the framework of Jewish law. In terms of the provisions of the 2009 Agreement, the development of the VCC required “the express approval of the Lithuanian Jewish community.”

Interestingly, in 2015 the Chief Rabbi of Lithuanian Rabbi Burshtein, the former chairman of the Lithuanian community Dr. Simonas Alperavičius, Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik, Rabbi Israel Isaac Kalmanovitz and Rabbi Tzvi Rotberg opposed the VCC. Prominent rabbis from the Kotler and Feinstein rabbinic dynasties lent their signatures to letters condemning the VCC project.

In January 2020, a senior rabbinical court, Rabbi Nissim Kareletz’s Bais Din, prohibited the VCC initiative. The court issued an injunction against the CPJCE and the Lithuanian Jewish Community chairperson Faina Kukliansky from participating in the project. The order included vendors in the VCC development proposal and is binding on all Jewish participants. Violation of the rabbinical court’s decision could result in the offender being ostracized from the larger Jewish community. Such court orders are rarely issued, but when they are, the consequences for families and a community can be devastating.

Pointedly, the CPJCE accepted the rabbinical court’s ruling prohibiting the VCC development and even published the court’s decision on its Twitter account, depicting the ruling as their swan song, a final salute and exit from Lithuania, after close to twenty years of work in managing the cemetery. The CPJCE had given themselves a pat on the back.

In support of the rabbinical court’s ruling, Rabbi Goldschmidt, Chief Rabbi of the Conference of Jewish Rabbis (CER), Europe’s most senior rabbinical umbrella organization issued a similar statement, condemning the VCC development. Additionally, the CER barred the CPJCE from participating in the conference center development or representing any Jewish community in Lithuania.

The ruling against the development of the VCC on the Jewish cemetery according to Jewish law had also been signed by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the world’s leading authority on Jewish law, together with other senior experts in the halacha. There is no dispute amongst rabbinical authorities that the VCC development is a violation of Jewish law and culture.

The Turto bankas website displays text that quotes the CPJCE as saying: “We want to emphasize that every step taken to preserve the said cemetery is carried out in strict accordance with the detailed instructions of our rabbis. We act as their representatives.”

Those same rabbis that the CPJCE represents and to which they argued they had subjugated themselves to, have now ruled that the development of the VCC is prohibited and that the CPJCE cannot participate in the development.

The CPJCE acted in good faith. It tried diligently to find creative ways to circumvent Jewish law. But that ship has sailed. The CPJCE is bound to the dictates of Jewish law and their rabbis, which it has accepted. Today, the chances of the CPJCE participating in the VCC project or providing “rabbinical supervision” for the initiative are close to zero, unless the members of the CPJCE change their religion.

Ms. Faina Kukliansky, who is another key factor in the equation, recently stated, “I do not have the expertise to determine whether the VCC project is compliant with Jewish law.” Her claim appeared on the Turto Bankas website. Additionally, Ms. Kukliansky verified that she had relied on the expertise of others. She has also reiterated that she will follow Jewish law. As all Jewish authorities have ruled that the VCC is prohibited, she is hardly likely to challenge that ruling. A person from the Vilnius Jewish community said that while Ms. Kukliansky was initially a proponent of the VCC initiative, she no longer supports the proposal.

Further, according to the 2009 Agreement, the Jewish Community of Lithuania is by definition, “The Organization that represents the interests of Lithuanian Jews and collaborates with international Jewish organizations regarding the old Jewish cemetery in Šnipiškės (Vilnius).”

A Jewish organization can only be Jewish if it subscribes to the dictum of Jewish law and culture. Failure to do so would not be in the interests of that Jewish organization or define it as a Jewish entity. Notably, all leading international Jewish organizations have expressly opposed the VCC.

If a Chair were to hypothetically support the VCC today in 2021, effectively constituting a de facto violation of Jewish law, that stance would be the equivalent of surrendering the community’s status as a Jewish community.

After the Israeli rabbinical court issued a restraining order against Kukliansky, precluding her from supporting the VCC, the CER is not far behind. The long and short of it is that the Israeli rabbinical court and the CER have the authority to issue a proclamation, an order that the once august Jewish community of Lithuania under its current leadership should be no more. That would be devastating. Nobody really wants that.

It has been a long haul. Lithuania has seen many years of desecration and the destruction of countless graves. At night only the ghosts of yesteryear tell their tale. About 95 percent of the Jewish community were slain during the war, many by Lithuanian “freedom fighters”.

But it’s a new day in Lithuania. Temperatures have changed. The new guard replaces the old. A new breeze blows. Without the support of the Lithuanian Jewish community and the CPJCE, the Vilnius Congress Center project remains a foggy image in the mind of its architects. And that’s encouraging. It’s a salute to those causes that battle Antisemitism, human rights violations and that value freedom of religion.

In collaboration with the Anti-Semitism Accountability Project (ASAP)

A journalist who writes about human rights violations and Antisemitism