Jewish Revival In Lithuania

by Baila Olidort - VILNIUS, LITHUANIA

February 23, 2004

Chief Rabbi of Lithuania, Sholom B. Krinsky, likes to tell the story of a Torah scroll that survived the Holocaust. Several years ago, on a historic tour of Lithuania, a Jew made his way into an antique shop and inquired about Jewish artifacts. The shopkeeper went to the back of the store and brought forth a badly damaged Torah scroll. “This is something that might be of interest to you,” he told the Jew. The Jew bought the Torah scroll and decided to give it to Lithuania’s only rabbi.

Rabbi Krinsky had the scroll restored. He then gathered Vilnius’s Jews to celebrate. They took turns dancing with the Torah and carried it under a canopy to a shul where it is now used regularly, some 60 years after it was discarded.

Rabbi Krinsky sees this as emblematic of the larger Jewish revival currently unfolding in Lithuania. Before World War II, the place was teeming with Jews and Jewish institutions. Famous for producing great Talmudic scholars, this east European city earned the moniker “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” But ninety four percent of Lithuania’s 250,000 Jews were killed in the Holocaust, leaving it a Jewish ghost town.

When Rabbi Krinsky and his wife arrived to Vilnius 10 years ago, there were few vestiges of this once rich Jewish hub. Of all the synagogues—and there were more than 100—they found only one, empty, but still standing: The Choir Synagogue Taharas HaKodesh. Not a single yeshiva nor a solitary mikveh remained, and Shabbos didn’t look any different from Sunday or Monday. There was no kosher food to be found, but, recalls Krinsky, in a poignant act of loyalty to a faith that now resided only in memory, a handful of elderly local Jews ate no meat or fowl since Vilna’s prewar days, when kosher shops were ubiquitous in this city.

Today, Lithuania’s 7,000 Jews—with the large majority in Vilnius—can shop for kosher meat, poultry, and a full line of kosher goods at local supermarkets. It took a bit of maneuvering and logistical work, but says Rabbi Krinsky, “there is no reason that Jewish people living in post-communist Lithuania, should not have access to kosher food.”

Krinsky is not just talking. He wants Jewish people to eat kosher food—whether or not they can afford it, and many of them cannot. “A lot of Jews here live well below the poverty line,” he says. So back in 1995, Krinsky opened Lithuania’s only kosher soup kitchen. Situated in Vilnius’s Chabad House, the soup kitchen serves up 150, three-four course hot dinners daily.

Lithuania’s Jewish community is now preparing for an anniversary celebration, marking a decade since the arrival of the country’s Chief Rabbi. It is a short time span, but the transformation in this decade is remarkable, and Lithuania’s Jewish community is finally enjoying a level of Jewish education and involvement that would have been hard to imagine in 1994: only ten years ago, the Choir shul stood empty. Today, Rabbi Krinsky leads some 200 congregants at Shabbat services, and weekday prayer services are held three times daily throughout the week.

Ten years ago, there was no Jewish day school to speak of. Today, more than 100 students are benefiting from an outstanding Judaic and secular studies curriculum at Chabad’s Or Avner Bais Menachem which runs from preschool through 12th grade. The school also provides two dozen needy students with comfortable dormitory facilities free of charge. In 2001, the school graduated its first 12th grade—a first Jewish graduation in Lithuania in sixty years. A good number of these students, says Krinsky, have since moved on to study at yeshivas and seminaries in Israel and the U. S., and some have already returned and are now working with Chabad in Lithuania.

Lithuania may never be restored to its former status as a bastion of Torah scholarship, but with the country’s Jewish infrastructure now rebuilt, Rabbi Krinsky has brought a measure of triumph to Lithuania’s Jews. They are the ones who still remember the mikvehs, the kollels, the yeshivas, the frenetic holiday preparations and the laughter of Jewish children on Lithuania’s streets, before the Holocaust silenced them forever.

Today 200 of the country’s Jewish little girls and boys sing to Jewish tunes and frolic in the summer sunshine in a six-week overnight Chabad Gan Israel summer camping program; a dynamic Jewish women’s program coordinated by Mrs. Krinsky celebrates Jewish feminine traditions, and a new mikveh built by Chabad is used by some twenty Jewish families; a comprehensive adult-education program reaches 300 Jews at weekly Torah classes offered by Chabad not only in Vilnius, but in the cities of Klapedai, Shavel and Kovno.

Lithuania’s Jews have proven a deep yearning to reconnect with their Jewish heritage. More than 1,000 come every year to Chabad’s communal seder. Nearly as many come to all of Chabad’s holiday celebrations. At Chabad’s first Chanukah celebration, an elderly wheelchair-bound woman made the difficult trip from a city three hours away, just, she told Rabbi Krinsky, “for the chance to witness Jews dancing in the streets of Vilnius once again.”

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