Lithuanian Jews go to war with Chabad rabbi and his followers

Hired guards prevent Sholom Ber Krinsky, who settled in Vilnius in 1994, from entering Jewish community center

Jewish Museum of Vilnius (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Jewish Museum of Vilnius (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)

Leaders of Lithuania’s small and fractious Jewish community hired security guards to prevent a local Chabad rabbi and his supporters from attending communal activities in Vilnius.

The guards prevented Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky, who settled in Vilnius in 1994, from entering a Jewish community center on Oct. 28, which functioned on that day as a house of worship due to renovations at the city’s main synagogue, according to Kalev Krelin, who earlier this year was appointed the chief rabbi of Lithuania. They also called police, who ejected several of Krinsky’s supporters.

The incident, which comes 12 years after a series of similar confrontations in Vilnius, is unusual in that it is an open expression of the quiet resentment of Chabad held by some members of several small Jewish communities in Europe. These Jews oppose what they see as the movement’s fundamentalism or believe the work of Chabad rabbis in their communities is needlessly dividing congregations that are barely large enough to function.

Zecharya Olickij, an observant Jew from Vilnius, said police detained him briefly after he asked why he and other supporters of Krinsky were being ejected. Community officials said Krinsky had “misbehaved,” Olickij said, who disputed the assertion.

Krinsky has “been always very helpful to the congregation, but he did not misbehave in any way whatsoever,” Olickij said.

But Krelin said that Krinsky “was brutally trying to force the synagogue to follow Chabad customs, even when it was clearly going against” local traditions.

“We warned him a few times and there was no reaction, so we decided to keep him away until everything will be clarified on both ends,” Krelin told JTA.

Chabad, the Hasidic movement with headquarters in New York and Israel, has hundreds of emissaries in dozens of countries who strive to maintain or upgrade Jewish community life. In some countries, including Russia, France, the Netherlands and Germany, Chabad emissaries cooperate seamlessly with lay leaders of Jewish communities.

But power struggles and mutual suspicion between community-appointed rabbis and Chabad colleagues are not uncommon either, occurring in Switzerland, Denmark and Greece, among other places.

The episode last month in Lithuania – home to about 6,000 Jews — was a milder repeat of a fistfight that broke out in 2004 at the main synagogue of Vilnius between supporters of Krinsky and those of Chaim Burshtein, who was hired by the community. Burshtein and Krinsky eventually reached a modus vivendi.

But the Jewish Community of Lithuania, or LZB, last year fired Burshtein amid his objections to the government’s plan to build on an area that used to be a Jewish cemetery. He accused Faina Kukliansky, the community’s president, of excessive authoritarianism – an allegation she has denied.

Dovid Katz, a New York-born Yiddish scholar and member of the Vilnius Jewish community, said he lamented the conflict because it came “after many years of blissful peace at the one functioning prewar synagogue in Vilnius.” Over the past year especially, both congregations in Vilnius “have prayed together in harmony, making for a decent-sized crowd, right through to the end of the Simchas Torah holiday.”

There was “no provocation of any kind“ for the “unfortunate trouble that has broken out,” said Katz, who has criticized Kukliansky over a range of issues.

Approached by JTA for a reaction on the incident, Kukliansky declined to comment.

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