Faina Kukliansky. Jews in Lithuania are experiencing a value challenge

Faina Kukliansky
DELFI / Orestas Gurevičius

Jews, just as any nation are not monolithic. Jews in Lithuania have a history of some 700 years and many things have occurred during it, both good and bad and the repercussions of the Holocaust in Lithuania were especially painful, after a physical attempt to destroy the Jewish nation followed the spiritually ruinous Soviet occupation.

I am often asked, when the Jewish people are so united, why is it different in Lithuania? Lithuania is no different, there are splits in the secular and religious Jewish communities in both Israel and the world. The Jewish nation’s wealth is our diversity, our wisdom, our faith, our capacity to remain Jewish.

I take pride in my nation. Unfortunately, things happen even in the Jewish community. It is unfortunate, but we have only had a mediocre performance in the “trial by money”. On one hand we have an excellently operating, consensus based Good Will Foundation, which distributes compensations for the Jewish religious community’s wealth, which for many years now has been supervised by the Lithuanian State Audit Office, the country’s chief audit institution and is continuing to receive positive evaluations.

On the other hand, we have ambitious community members, who believe that they can do the best, the most transparently and preferably unilaterally. They claim that the opinion of the majority is simply the simulation of democracy.

In Lithuania, as across the world, Jewish communities are led by volunteer leaders. To me this office is primarily an honour and a pleasure. Prior to taking responsibility, I learnt much from the previous chairmen – Grigorijus Kanovičius and dr. Simonas Alperavičius. Many of the things needed for this work, I learnt from jurist professor Jurijus Bluvenšteinas, Josifas Levinsonas, Maša Grodnikienė – active community members, erudites.

Yes, I have indeed made mistakes during my leadership of the Lithuanian Jewish Community (LJC), but I believe that only those, who talk much of theory, but do very little in practice, who make no mistakes. We can only achieve things together, united as a community, supported by international organisations and the state of Israel.

And Lithuania has created all the conditions for us to act, following independence. If we do not use this for joint work, but instead besmirch one another, we can only blame ourselves due to the diminishment of our community.

It is a great shame to me and I take part of the responsibility for the community not being united and dialogue turning into disputes. We should not have allowed this to happen. After experiencing so many terrible things, internal disputes are far too much of a luxury for the Jewish nation and community in Lithuania. After all, there are so few Jews left and I am so unwilling to see the community in Lithuania vanish, that our children would forget they are Jewish.

As a community we have done much over the past five years. It is becoming increasingly normal for the public to speak of historical memory. We argue much and perhaps often react emotionally and categorically, but we are inclined to talk.

No one is surprised any longer regarding Jewish heritage, cultural and memorial marches, events and celebrations happening in Lithuanian towns, former shtetls. Almost every municipality is organising publications intended for local Jews and their input.

Slowly, but consistently, through cooperation with local communities and municipalities, we are repairing Jewish cemeteries, seeking to immortalise the memory of fellow citizen Jews and clean up locations of the mass murder of Jews.

The Šolom Aleichem Gymnasium in Vilnius became a beacon of Jewish education and earned a high formal reputation through its targeted work with youth. I take pride in our children, who celebrate Jewish religious celebrations, remember their forefathers’ culture, gather for Jewish life. Interest in Jewish culture is on the rise in the public, we observe massive interest in participating in Judaist education and Hebrew language courses.

Synagogues are brought back for a new life one after another – in Pakruojis, Kėdainiai, Joniškis, soon in Žiežmariai, Kalvarija and Alanta. We are negotiating on the heritage status of the Vilnius Great Synagogue, Užupis Jewish Cemetery gravestone memorialisation, realising the Jewish saviours’ monument. Discussions on a modern Holocaust and Jewish history museum are continuing in the public sphere.

The state has a common agreement on a joint definition of anti-Semitism, which will likely help law enforcement institutions identify more breaches of the law, which contain anti-Semitic elements.

Holocaust education material is presented to the public such as the unique publication by the Lithuanian Jewish Community of a diary by Icchok Rudaševski, a boy living in the Vilnius ghetto, which receive so much attention in the Vilnius Book Fair and later in various events in Lithuania and abroad. We feel safe in Lithuania.

But we cannot fail to notice a resurgence in anti-Semitism in the public sphere and among public figures. Political processes ongoing in neighbouring countries are also worrying. As such, we are thankful to a coalition of human rights organisations for their cooperation and to the public for its support.

We are thankful to the Lithuanian Seimas, which after consulting the public passed the wise decision to declare 2020 the year of the Vilnius Gaon and Lithuanian Jewish history. We have serious plans for this year, wish to suitable gather and mark the 700 years of Jewish history in Lithuania.

Every day I feel motivated because I care about the welfare of our Jews, I care about our nation’s relation to the public. I care about the future of our small community. We are almost the only community, which dedicates so much care to its most vulnerable members – the elderly and the poor. Today a whole 120 caregivers look after our almost three hundred elderly across Lithuania. Young Jewish families receive support in preparing for school. Impoverished Jews receive support to purchase food, medicine, fuel and hygiene products.

Every year, the LJC dedicates support to Jew saviours and their descendants. We are glad when we can help, it is our duty and our calling. Aiding one another is a core principle of our nation, which has helped us survive and remain human under the most terrible conditions. It is important that every Jew, who is met with misfortunate, would receive aid from the community. Mitzvah (Good deed) – is a principal duty of every Jew, the community could not exist, if we were to forget it, blinded by ambition. Even in the face of conflict, we cannot relinquish our nationality, our identity – it is time to remember what unites us, time to remember, what it is that makes us Jewish.

The future of the community will in large part depend on ourselves. Today, based on various data, there are some 3.5 thousand Jews living in Lithuania, whose unity after the 2013 Restitution Law is faced with yet another historical challenge. Variety in opinions and pluralism are a crucial condition for democracy. As such, I value my opponents’ criticism and their active civic position. Unfortunately, sometimes I am also left greatly disappointed when personal attacks against me, my family, the legitimate leadership of the LJC or non-Jewish community staff are covered under the guise of democracy.

Time will reveal the real goals of this antagonism, but for now we must each answer to our conscience – do the results justify the means – the besmirching of the Jewish community’s name?

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