Community leaders and activists from across the globe have rallied in protest of the construction of a conference center on the old cemetery in Vilnius.
The Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi David Lau, the highest authority in Jewish Law Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and a respected rabbinical court have all ruled that the construction of a conference center is forbidden and illegal. Their decisions are consistent with a multitude of Rabbis from across the globe, who have come out vehemently against the new conference center. The initiative is also further opposed by the White House, U.S. Senators, Congressmen, Mr. Paul Packer (Chairman of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad) and the Israeli Knesset.
The proponents of the conference center (the Turto Bankos and the Vilnius City Council) argue that the development will facilitate a remarkable improvement to the area, both economically and aesthetically. To give credence to their initiative or perhaps purely out of ignorance, they sought the blessing of a Jewish interest group to support their cause.
Practically, this interest group is dwarfed by the authority of the prestigious rabbis who oppose the plan, almost to the point of oblivion. To anyone who appreciates the importance afforded to varying levels of authority in Jewish law, the attempt by the planners of the conference center to candy-coat their project is both tickling and a tragedy. It is tickling because the notion that any Jewish body or individual could overrule the authority of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the Chief Rabbi of Israel Rabbi David Lau and a respected rabbinical court, is practically impossible. It is a tragedy because the idea that professionals and Lithuanian politicians who are ostensibly citizens in good standing, could err so badly in their judgement, is sad.
Pointedly, it is unlikely that the Vilnius City Council would allow a junior school student to sign off as a construction engineer to a suspension bridge. But yet that is exactly what they have done.
Another misconception which the bank and City Council have tried to peddle, is that with the utmost surgical precision and care, the disruption of bones and skeletal remains can be eloquently avoided. “Jewish heritage will be protected,” press releases proclaim.
Preservation of skeletal remains is an important factor in preventing desecration. However, just as important is the requirement that the place of burial be used exclusively as a resting place for the deceased. Most certainly a conference center or a creation with any other purpose, simply wouldn’t cut.
Seemingly, the desire to improve the area by the Vilnius City Council is juxtaposed by the tragic desecration which will take place if the plan for the conference center goes ahead. This leaves the city in an irresolvable quandary.
Enter Adele Schachner Architecture, New York architect and designer extraordinaire, who has put forward a tentative proposal: the restoration of the cemetery to an aesthetically pleasing memorial with beautiful and trendy sidewalks. The plan ensures that the authentic memorial component of the cemetery will be maintained together with a design which is pleasing and attractive to the eye.
“We arranged the ground in a metaphorical gridded cemetery of two shades of gravel,” says Ms Schachner. “We used soft white and grey tones, evocative of the tombstones that once inhabited the site. The gravel also allowed for low maintenance, year round groundcover for the expansive site. We then frosted the existing glass windows and added mirrored panels to the massive roof, reducing its appearance. During the day the roof reflects the sky and gridded ground. At night, the roof twinkles with the thousands of mini solar-powered lights planted at each corner of the ground grid.”
“The forlorn, abandoned cemetery will finally be restored to the prestige it deserves,” she asserts reassuringly.
Whether this foresighted vision is realized, will depend on whether logic, measured thinking and pragmatism prevail. The alternative is sanctions, boycotts and relegation. It’s an avenue which no one wants.
Everyone involved in this dispute would far rather see a prosperous and beautiful Vilnius, a city which could be the cultural capital of Eastern Europe. That is the vision for which loyal Lithuanians, deep in their hearts, want.