True Lithuania

Judaism in Lithuania

Lithuania is so important in the Jewish history that Vilnius is sometimes called the “Jerusalem of the North”. It is here that the famous Talmud commentator Elijah (Gaon of Vilnius) lived in the 18th century. Jews once made the majority of inhabitants in a few Lithuanian towns and a significant minority in many others. The type of Judaism followed in the Lithuania's prime yeshivas influenced Judaism worldwide.

Jewish religious communities have been massively drained by emigration since mid-19th century, but the Nazi German Holocaust (1941-1944) and the Soviet atheist policies (1945-1990) proved to deal the final blow to most of them, leading to an abandonment of the yeshivas and many synagogues. Soviets then destroyed many religious structures, among them Jewish cemeteries (reusing some gravestones for entertainment buildings) and the Vilnius Great Synagogue. These Soviet policies were not unique to Judaism as other religious groups shared a similar fate (atheist Jews, on the other hand, were influential in the Soviet Union, this hastening the decline in Judaism followers).

An abandoned synagogue in Alytus (Dzūkija region). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

What has survived is still impressive albeit only two synagogues are working now (in Vilnius and Kaunas). In some cities and towns, such as Alytus, Kėdainai, Pakruojis, Švėkšna or Joniškis, there are former synagogues still standing, some of them converted to another use, but many others abandoned and derelict. Approximately 80 synagogues survive, 13 of them wooden. They are usually harder to spot than the local churches because of the lack of tower and a less visible location.

A legacy of the Soviet occupation is that only 30% percent of Lithuania’s ethnic Jews are of the Jewish faith (nearly half of them aged 60+), with most younger Jews now professing no religion. This led to serious disagreements between religious and secular Jewish communities over who is the real descendant of the interwar Jewry and who should receive back the buildings that were nationalized by the Soviets and compensations. The new religious possibilities after years of a spiritual vacuum also caused disagreements inside Vilnius Jewish community over what type of Judaism should be followed in Vilnius Synagogue (Hassidic Chabad Lubavitch that made inroads to Lithuania in the 1990s or the traditional Litvak).

That said, 2010s saw a limited rebirth of the Jewish faith and after a long hiatus, it became possible to see some Jews in the traditional Orthodox clothes, although very few and mainly around the Vilnius synagogue at the prayer time.

Renovated synagogues in Joniškis. Like most renovated synagogues, they are no longer used for religion, even if returned to the Jewish community. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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