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Judaism in Lithuania

Judaism in Lithuania has a rich history, going back to the 14th century and flourishing during the epoch of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which in 1569 with Poland created the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Vaad arba aratzot – Jewish Council of Four Lands – was formed in 1580 and it lasted till 1764. Half a century later, the (Jewish) Council of Lithuania was created in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Vaad Medinat Lita, 1623-1764).

During the last decades of the Commonwealth in the 18th c., religious Jewish life was shaked by the rise of Hassidic movement, and an opposition (Mitnaggedism) to that movement rose up in Lithuania. Lithuanian Jews became consequently known as Mitnaggedim (plural from mitnagged), and the term mitnagged became synonym for Litvak Today, the “Lithuanian form” of Judaism is worldwide known as the Lithuanian branch of Jewish Orthodoxy (Haredim), and it originates from the “school of thought” of the Gaon of Vilna (R. Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, 1720-1797). Among several transformations of religious landscape of Lithuanian Jews during Russian tsarist regime in the XIX century, one of the most renowned is reorganization by the hands of rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (disciple of the Gaon of Vilna) the highest rabbinic learning institutions, yeshivot. For the final impact on the process of the formation the Lithuanian Orthodox Judaism, the Mussar movement, initiated by rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883), was substantial too. During the Holocaust, about 95% of Lithuanian Jewry was annihilated by the Nazis and their collaborators. The Lithuanian yeshiva world has flown the country and today lives in other countries.

In the WWII and its aftermath, Soviet authorities destroyed thousands of synagogues – material remnants of the history of Judaism in Lithuania. A handful of buildings of former synagogues was abandoned or transformed into buildings of industrial functionality, sport halls, or provincial cultural centers. The majority of them are still waiting for restoration.

Judaism in Lithuania today is confronting many problems, trying to revitalize religious practice after the Holocaust and devastating decennia of Soviet Regime. During the Soviet period, religious practical life was almost paralyzed, with only two (choral) synagogues left functioning (in Vilnius and Kaunas) and persecuted.

From 1992, the Lithuanian Jewish community began restoring religious life by inviting Orthodox (mitnaggedic) rabbis (the longest period of rabbinate here belongs to a rabbi from Moscow, R. Chaim Burstein), who tried to find resources and organize people for practices. In 1994, a rabbi of Chabad Lubavitch Hassidim, Rav Shalom Ber Krinskiy, also came in for a missionary activity. He started many activities here, also trying to animate the Jewish religious life. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet regime, many Lithuanian Jews left Lithuania for Israel. Approximately 2,800 core Jews live in present Lithuania (from about a total Jewish population with identity based on Jewish parents of 4,700, according to Berman Jewish Databank 2015). The majority of Jews in Lithuania is secular, and only small groups, not very much exceeding 50-60 of adult people in Vilnius, attend synagogue during major calendar festivals. In other cities, such as Kaunas, Šiauliai, and Klaipėda, the number is even smaller. Years after the fall of the Soviet regime, it is still a serious problem to manage to gather ten adult men (the minyan) in the synagogue or elsewhere every day. There is still no mikveh - ritual basin, and kosher food is not easily available.

The small number of practicing Jews does not allow them to afford a rabbi, a yeshiva or a Beth midrash in any city, and the appointment or dismissal of a rabbi depends on the considerations of the Head of the Lithuanian Jewish community. Is such a situation, rabbis change more often than would be necessary for practicing members of the community. Many people are secular or do not have enough experience in the religious practice, although some of them were introduced to the practice by Chabad or became acquainted with them by relatives and friends in Israel. Despite many sporadic fiery clashes that occurred during decades in the aftermath of arrival of r. Sh. B. Krinskiy, between him and local Jews, mitnaggedim, in 2017 he was appointed by the Head of Lithuanian Jewish community and accepted by the Head of the Religious community of Lithuanian Jews (Litvakes) as the rabbi of the only functioning synagogue in Vilnius (after dismissal of two rabbis of the mitnaggedim, R. Calev Krelin and R. Shimshon Isakson), thus provoking discontent and split in the mitnaggedic community of Vilnius. Informal group of mitnaggedim have organized informal “Beth midrash of Vilna Gaon”, which includes several people in the process of giur, as well. This community is organized by utilizing new communicative possibilities, occasional meetings for festivals, friendly support, attending lectures by occasionally invited guest rabbis.

During the last three decades, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the only and same two synagogues are still functioning (in Vilnius and in Kaunas). Several formal and informal religious communities and groups also exist in Vilnius – the Religious community of Lithuanian Jews (Litvakes), and people associated with Chabad Lubavitch Hassidim around Rabbi Shalom B. Krinskiy. In Kaunas, there are also two registered religious communities (“Religious community of Kaunas’ Jews”, and another one registered as Hassidic of undefined affiliation, with their own prayer hall, and there exists a third, unregistered community, formed by students from Israel with their own rabbi). Other informal religious communities exist in Klaipėda and Šiauliai. During pandemia of Covid-19 mitnaggedic Jews from Vilnius, Klaipėda, Palanga, Šiauliai had an opportunity to have regular zoom Torah classes with their informal rabbi Calev Krelin every week, and are looking for registering by Ministry of Justice in Lithuania.

Available websites:
Official site of Lithuanian Jewish community; official site of Religious community of Kaunas‘ Jews; an independent site of historical, cultural information and actual controversies.

D 13 July 2021    AAušra Pažėraitė

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