Bringing Judaism back to Vilna, the once glorious “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” known for its scholars and bastions of Talmud study, is so last century. Last weekend, Chabad representatives Rabbi Sholom Ber and Nechama Dina Krinsky hosted a Shabbat retreat for 60 families from Klaipeda, which was followed by a Jewish women’s concert on Saturday night that attracted an audience of 300.
Never heard of Klaipeda? It’s 200 miles or so from Vilnius, situated where the Kurish Bay meets the Baltic Sea. Those familiar with Jewish pre-war history are more apt to recognize it’s other name: Memel. A one-time home of Rabbi Israel Lipkin (Salanter), father of the Mussar movement, the Jewish population of Klaipeda once amounted to 14% of its population. Shortly before the Holocaust, 7 of Klaipeda’s 21 judges were Jewish, and a good portion of commerce and trade was in Jewish hands.
Since the decimation of the city’s Jewish population during the Holocaust, a trickle of Jewish families repopulated the city. Of the 300 or so Jewish residents of Klaipeda, 60 spent Shabbat with the Krinskys at a resort in the popular seaside town of Palanga. Its pier and yellow brick walkway quiet in the off-season, Palanga provided an ideal getaway spot for reflection during Klaipeda’s first community-wide Shabbaton.
For years, Rabbi Krinsky has been driving to Klaipeda to teach Torah classes, staying overnight at times when ice storms rendered the drive home treacherous. Chabad hosts holiday events there every year with participant numbers growing since the Krinsky’s arrival in 1994. Chabad’s presence has brought “a new warmth and interest in the smaller communities,” said Rabbi Krinsky, who also teaches in Kaunas (Kovno) and other Lithuanian cities. Shabbat, its beauty and meaning, had been the subject of many conversations during Torah classes. But just as a label can describe a wine, but “fruit forward notes” means nothing until the wine is sipped, descriptions of Shabbat pale before its actual experience. It was time for Klaipeda Jews to experience a true Shabbat.
Rosy clouds hovered along the horizon on Friday afternoon shortly before sunset when the Klaipeda group stepped off the buses in Palanga. Classes that explored the mystical dimensions of Shabbat were held throughout the weekend. Group meals were punctuated with lively singing sessions. “To be honest, I cannot think of a way that it could have been better,” said Kalman Malenzon, 23, who recently returned to Lithuania after earning his law degree in the U.K. “The buses were comfortable. The food was good. Everything was absolutely wonderful.”
Until the retreat, some community members were skeptical that it was possible to press the “off” button on the outside world for Shabbat. Some were surprised to see that “you can cut off from world for 25 hours and you didn’t miss anything,” said a pillar of Klaipeda’s Jewish community, Lev Piaf.
The Shabbaton’s spiritual momentum built to a crescendo at the concert after Shabbat. Three hundred Jewish women attended and danced in the aisles. A 25-voice all-female choir from Israel sang songs in Hebrew, Russian, Yiddish, Ladino with a few operatic arias thrown in for good measure. The music-loving crowd sang along, breaking into their own renditions of homegrown ballads and Russian lullabies. “Reaching out to other Jews by giving over a love of Yiddishkeit through song uplifted the choir,” said Nechama Dina Krinsky. “You could feel the emotional connection between the choir and the community.”
Over the course of Shabbat, members of the choir asked their Lithuanian hosts how many Jews lived in Klaipeda. Their questions about the number of Jews in the area. Piaf responded, “one planeload.” Though Judaism is undergoing a renaissance in Lithuania, there is no doubt that most Jews in Kleipeda “identify with Israel passionately,” said Nechama Dina. “Even those who don’t have an immediate plan to emigrate talk about eventually making the move.”
Chabad of Vilnius’s population may have left its heart in Jerusalem, but that hasn’t stopped the Krinskys from building up their roster of services. Chabad’s Ohr Avner day school educates 150 children. Chabad operates a mikvah and soup kitchen that feeds 200 people each day. Summer brings Jewish camping, and Chabad’s holiday programs and Torah classes run throughout the year. “Until Moshiach comes, we are here to serve,” said Rabbi Krinsky. “We will be the last ones to shut the light.”