Chabad opens center in city of rival, the Gaon

MOSCOW — When the Lubavitch movement recently opened a new Jewish center in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, at least a few observers noted a bit of historical irony.

That's because the city formerly called Vilna was known to generations of Eastern European Jews not only as a major center of Jewish learning, but also as the stronghold of opposition to Chassidism.

Indeed, it was the Vilna Gaon, the renowned commentator on the Talmud and the Torah, who stirred up controversy with his stiff opposition to the burgeoning Chassidic movement during the late 18th century.

The new center opened a week after Lithuania's Jews commemorated in mid-September the 200th anniversary of the passing of the Gaon.

But for Rabbi Shalom Ber Krinsky, who directs Lubavitch activities in Lithuania, there is little irony.

"The argument was over a long time ago," he said of the disagreements between Chassidic Jews and their opponents.

Krinsky's Lubavitch great-grandfather left Vilna for the United States in the late 19th century — which serves as proof for Krinsky that by that time the "Lubavitch tradition existed in Vilna as well."

Krinsky, a 29-year-old Boston native, pointed out that the Lubavitch movement established its first yeshiva in Vilna in the 1920s.

Like other Jewish institutions that served the prewar Vilna community of 60,000, the yeshiva was destroyed during the Holocaust.

Before the new center opened, the community that boasted dozens of synagogues before the war had only a single Jewish house of worship. That synagogue survived both the Nazi occupation and the subsequent Communist regime.

Elderly Jews constitute the large majority of those who currently attend services.

Krinsky hopes that the new center's synagogue and other programs will attract younger participants.

"We tailor much of our programming to singles and young families, most of whom are discovering and tasting their heritage for the first time," he said.

Krinsky settled in Vilnius three years ago and is the only rabbi permanently based in the Lithuanian capital.

Vilnius' younger generation of Jews will not be the only ones to benefit from the new center.

The previous Lubavitch-operated soup kitchen served free hot meals to 100 elderly and needy Jews — many of them Holocaust survivors.

The bigger kitchen in the new center may boost the number of meals served, Krinsky said.

Representatives of the Jewish community and the Lithuanian government attended last month's ceremonies that marked the opening of the 10,000 square-foot facility in the city once known as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania."

The center, which is the latest in the chain of community centers opened by the Lubavitch movement to foster Jewish revival in the former Soviet Union, will also house the lower grades of a Lubavitch day school, a Sunday school and an evening yeshiva.

The premises also include a library, children's game room, a dining room and a computer room that will have a direct Internet connection.

Formerly a rundown apartment house, the building was purchased by the Lubavitch movement through the bequest of philanthropist Joseph Rohr of Nice, France. The building is dedicated in his memory.

Emmanuel Zingeris, the only Jewish member of the Lithuanian Parliament, said the center offered a future of hope for a community that had a glorious past.

"The new center is very important to a community that is coming to life, that is not just memorializing its dead, but is also rebuilding Jewish life," he said.