It was an unusual event that brought traffic to a halt in the streets of Vilnius earlier this week. Five-hundred of the city’s residents were joined in a procession through the center of town, led by a 30-piece marching band, Vilnius’s vice mayor, members of parliament and foreign ambassadors.
The object of all this fanfare? The dedication of a Torah scroll to the city’s Chabad shul, donated by Mrs. Lily Safra, head of the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation. Carried under the traditional chuppah canopy, the Torah made its way through Vilnius’s ancient streets and alleyways, beginning at the site of what was once the Great Vilna Shul on Hebrew Street.
The scene was surreal, a poignant hark back to another time, when Vilna’s streets pulsated with Jewish life. As the procession continued on to the area that was home to the Chabad school and shul before World War II, the dramatic impact of the moment was lost on none. Ninety-four percent of Vilna’s vibrant Jewish community was decimated in WWII.
But with all the pomp surrounding the arrival of a new Torah scroll to Vilna—including scores of Chabad-Lubavitch yeshiva students carrying flaming torches—a small measure of redemption has finally come to this former bastion of talmudic scholarship.
Representing Mrs. Lily Safra at the dedication was Yair Torenhaim, who remarked on the significance of this event taking place on the 18th of Elul, the birthday of two great luminaries: the Baal Shem Tov and the founder of Chabad Chasidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Also addressing the crowd was a former Jewish member of parliament, Mr. Zingeris, who spoke of the significance of rebuilding Jewish life in Vilna.
“The idea that this once was such an important center of Torah gives us more of a sense of urgency in our work to restore Jewish activity here,” says Chabad-Lubavitch representative, Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky.
Today, Vilna is home to 7,000 Jews. Since 1994, Rabbi Krinsky and his wife, Nechama Dina, have been working vigorously to reacquaint the city’s Jewish community with Jewish life as it once thrived here. Kosher food is readily available at two major supermarkets; 150 children are enrolled in Chabad’s elementary and high school; some 30 college students participate in Chabad’s weekly Torah classes, and as many as 350 adults join in Chabad’s adult Jewish education program.
Slowly but surely, “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” as this city was once known, is reclaiming a rich Jewish past.