Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
Two groups lead in the fight to save Jewish cemeteries. Both organizations strive for the same goal but each has a different approach. The Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE), which is headed by Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger, universally respected London roshyeshiva, was founded in 1992; its headquarters is in London with affiliate offices in Warsaw. The CPJCE, also known as Admas Kodesh, meets with local municipal authorities and with heads of state, seeking to achieve working relationships. In all of CPJCE’s work, they proceed with the assumption of responsibility for all Jewish cemeteries in a particular country and all of the Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe.
Asra Kadisha was established under the leadership of Rabbi Yitzchak Ze’ev Soloveitchik, zt’l (1886—1959), Brisker Rav; Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, zt’l (1879—1965), roshyeshiva Mir Jerusalem; and Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, zt’l (1899—1985), Steipler Rav. Asra Kadisha was founded as a response to major excavations at Beit Shearim beginning in 1957, and has since organized protest demonstrations at archaeological and construction sites. At times, some of the protests turned violent. Asra Kadisha expanded its horizons and monitors graveyards outside of Israel as well. Sometimes confrontational, Asra Kadisha is uncompromising in its initial undertakings.
In recent years, Asra Kadisha has renounced Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch, roshbeisdin of the Eidah Hacharedis Badatz in Jerusalem. His rulings allowed construction in challenged sites to continue despite protests. Some of the protesters lapsed into unseemly physical attacks against him. Rabbi Shternbuch is a renowned published Torah scholar and many have loudly come out in his defense.
An added dimension that distinguishes the two worthy organizations is their chassidic affiliations. Admas Kodesh’s efforts are identified with Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, Satmar Rebbe headquartered in Kiryas Yoel. Asra Kadisha is affiliated with Rabbi Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, Satmar Rebbe headquartered in Williamsburg.
The Snipisek (Shnipishuk in Yiddish) Jewish Cemetery in Vilnius (Vilna) was established in the late 1400s. The cemetery was used until 1831, at which time czarist authorities closed the cemetery to any additional burials. An estimated 10,000 souls are buried there. The Shnipishuk cemetery was continuously under threat since the early 1930s. In 1934, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, zt’l (1863—1940), eminent rav of Vilna and leading rav in pre-WWII Europe, wrote, “We cannot agree to any compromise” regarding encroachment of the cemetery and that all possible efforts must be made to save it.
The Vilna Gaon, zt’l (1720—1797), one of the greatest Talmudic scholars, was buried there. The Soviets built over the site after World War II and the remains of the Gaon were re-interred in the Saltonishku Cemetery in Vilna. In 1997, thousands of tourists gathered at the grave of the Vilna Gaon to celebrate the 200th yahrzeit. Preparations are presently under way for the government of Lithuania to erect a monument at the original site of the Vilna Gaon’s burial.
The cemetery was destroyed by the Nazis during their occupation of Vilna in World War II (1941—1945). Soviet authorities continued the destruction during the building of the Zalgiris Stadium in 1949. The overwhelming majority of matzeivos (tombstone monuments) have been purloined and used in various construction projects throughout the general area. The Sports Palace in Vilna, one of many Communist “sports palaces” established throughout the Soviet empire, was built in 1971 on what has been confirmed as cemetery property, but not atop any graves. In 2005, two apartment buildings were built there. The project was condemned by international Jewish organizations and resulted in a motion being passed in the United States Congress in 2008, condemning Lithuania for its “failure to protect the historic Jewish cemetery in Vilnius.”
In August 2009, after reviewing many differing maps, as well as using ground-penetrating radar to search for any remains, Lithuanian government officials reached an agreement with Jewish organizations on the boundaries of the cemetery and granted it protected Cultural Heritage status. The agreement was made with the present Lithuanian Jewish community and with the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (Admas Kodesh).
In February 2015, plans for renovating the Sports Palace were announced. The facility has not been used for decades and was completely shut down in 2001. In April 2015, government officials announced that “Jewish organizations and the Lithuanian government have agreed on sensitive renovation in central Vilnius.” The announcement included that the cost of “painting and renovating the interior” of the 40-year-old building would be $25 million, with $20 million coming from the European Union (EU). The dollar amount, some assume, will be for more than just interior renovations and painting. The presumption is that an additional annex will be built with the hope that tens of thousands will visit the rejuvenated facility. The facade of the stadium is architecturally unique and, by enactment, will be preserved.
Dr. Bernard Fryshman, a greatly respected Torah activist and chairman of the Conference of Academicians for the Protection of Jewish Cemeteries, notes in his op-ed letter published in the Hamodia on July 3, 2015, that “a representative of the American embassy inquired about the plans and was told, presumably with a straight face, that there will be no construction within the cemetery boundaries and no digging or excavation.” Dr. Fryshman predicts that there will be necessary trespass on cemetery property for “the storing of materials and equipment, the placement of tents and small structures, the travel of cars and trucks, and the arrival of new materials and removal of old.” Concerns are also being raised regarding a necessary parking lot to serve the potential large crowds.
On June 4, 2015, a delegation representing Admas Kodesh met with the Lithuanian Consul General in New York (as reported here in the 5TJT: “Lithuania, Kugel, and the Vilna Gaon,” June 12, 2015). Rabbi Sholom Teitelbaum, 15th Avenue Satmar Rav in Boro Park; Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice-president of Agudath Israel; this author; Hon. Rabbi Yitzchok Fleischer, member of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad; Chaim Z. Appel, Esq., community activist; Gary Schlesinger, executive board chairman of UJCare of Brooklyn; and Rabbi Shmuel Schlesinger, son of Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger, president of Admas Kodesh, were invited by Hon. Julius Pranevicius, Consul General, to review preservation of all Jewish cemeteries and mass graves in Lithuania.
Prior to the New York meeting, representatives of Admas Kodesh met Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius on April 30 to discuss the future and protection of the old Shnipishuk Cemetery. Their mutual understanding was formalized in a letter of agreement and cooperation.
On Tuesday, August 18, in a meeting at the office of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad in Washington, D.C., Commission Chairlady Lesley Weiss met with Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs, American Jewish Committee; Hon. Rabbi Abba Cohen, Washington director and counsel for Agudath Israel of America and member of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad; Jeffrey L. Farrow, executive director, United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad; Rabbi Abraham Ginsberg, executive director of CPJCE (Admas Kodesh); Carol Beilman Werner, desk officer for Lithuania and Baltic Energy Affairs for the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs; Susan Sandler, foreign-affairs officer, Office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, U.S. Department of State; Gary Schlesinger, executive board chairman of UJCare of Brooklyn and cemetery preservation activist; and me. Additional commission members participated via conference phone call.
The purpose of the meeting was to clarify complaints lodged by Asra Kadisha representatives regarding the Shnipishuk Cemetery and impending desecrations there. After careful review, though renovations of the Sports Palace were announced, no proposals have been formulated. No tender or bid was solicited or submitted. No blueprints have been drawn. The entire plan is barely in its imaginary stage. Further, the offices of the prime minister and president have committed themselves, by formal letter and proclamation, to protect and preserve the sanctity and atmosphere of the cemetery. Instead of faulting and condemning the Lithuanian government, they should be applauded and held up as a model of communication and understanding for all other sovereign governments in Eastern Europe and throughout the world.
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.