A decision by the highly respected rabbinical court of Rabbi Nissim Korelitz in Bnei Brak has ruled that a planned development of a conference center in Vilnius, Lithuania, constitutes a flagrant violation of Jewish law. Accordingly, the auspicious Bnei Brak court issued an injunction, ordering all parties connected to the project to "cease and desist" from participating in the project.
A partner in the law firm of Hadad Roth Shenhar and Co., Adv. Hanoch Ehrlich, served the order by the rabbinical court on the parties, indicating that the proposed plan by the government, constitutes a violation of Jewish law and cultural heritage considerations. Turto Bankas, a government funded Lithuanian bank is a leading participant. See FULL LETTER, injunction and communication by Hadad Roth Shenhar and Co.
The 500-year old Shnípeshok cemetery, in which the Vilna Gaon was originally buried has been earmarked for development. The gravesite is the final resting place of between 50,000 and 80,000 Jewish souls that were buried there. During the Russian occupation following the World War II, tombstones were desecrated and destroyed. Due to the shortage of building materials that marked the communist era, marble from the graves was then repurposed and used to construct buildings.
The cemetery is a protected site and under Lithuanian law, any development must comply with cultural heritage protection considerations. The ruling by the rabbinical court underscores the desecration that will be perpetrated, if the development goes ahead.
Leading Jewish authorities including the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi David Lau and Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky have expressed their objections to the plan.
A recent court filing by Turto Bankas (Case No. civilinėje byloje Nr. e2-625-918/2020) claimed that the respective rabbinical court in Israel "did not have jurisdiction over the matter, as rabbinical courts may only act in matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance."
A leading expert in international law retorted that the Turto Bankas misses the point of the rabbinical court's decision. "There is no more powerful authority that can make that determination that the conference center development constitutes an affront to Jewish cultural heritage. The rabbinical court of Rabbi Nissim Korelitz is the equivalent of the Supreme Court in the Jewish world. If they don't have the authority to make that determination, no one does.
"Lithuanian law requires that a development on a protected site must meet specific criteria and comply with cultural heritage considerations. The rabbinical court ruling, together with all those of all other Jewish authorities, demonstrates that the development plan does not pass the litmus test," the expert said.
Separately, the Committee for Protecting Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (the CPJCE), which had ostensibly been supervising the controversial project with Turto Bankas, has had its authority to represent the Jewish community in Europe revoked.
President of the Conference of European Rabbis, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt issued a statement, stripping the CPJCE of its authority to participate in the development. The CPJCE was also a recipient to the injunction, invoked by the rabbinical court in Israel, preventing multiple parties from taking further action to develop the conference center.
A letter by Mr. Paul Packer (Chairman United States Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad) communicated condemnation of any proposal to use the Old Cemetery in Vilnius for a purpose other than as a cemetery. The full text of Mr. Paul Packer's letter can be read here.
A pending court proceeding in Lithuania, contesting the development of the conference center on the cemetery, is anticipated to set a precedent for the desecration of cemeteries of all religious faiths in Europe.
A hearing for the court case in Vilnius is scheduled for Thursday, October 1, 2020, when the parties will submit filings and make their arguments. The plaintiffs include over 150 individuals who have ancestors buried in the cemetery. They are represented by Advocate Modestas Sriubus and Advocate Salvija Sriubienė. Legal analysts say that the proceeding represents a watershed moment for the court system and human rights.