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Wednesday, 9 May 2018

No Stone Left Unturned: Vilna, Athens – London, Too!

These past few days I’ve been much exercised by the Jewish way of death.

On Monday, for example, I received a begging letter.

One I cannot ignore.

It came from Ruta Bloshtein who spearheads the campaign to prevent a convention centre being built on the site of the Jewish cemetery in Vilnius (‘Vilna’) Lithuania.

A Change.org petition Bloshtein organised has received 43,000 signatures but this has merely postponed, not prevented publication of the initial contracts for ten years of hosting concerts, conferences “and most likely circuses and trade shows on top of our old Vilna cemetery”, she told supporters.

“Although the Soviets stole all the stones, they turn up all over the city and could be returned, and the magnificent old structures rebuilt. Most of the graves still lie intact. This is the burial place of great Jewish leaders including Reb Moshe Rivkes (the Be’er Hagola), the Chayei Odom, and Reb Zelmale Volozhiner, among many thousands of Jewish graves of people whose families purchased, in good faith, their plots in perpetuity”.

When the issue was covered by The New York Times, Jewish community leader Simon Gurevich alleged that Soviet antisemites first built a sports hall inside the cemetery.

Now Bloshtein is asking supporters to urge the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad (USCPAHA to appeal to the Lithuanian authorities to move the convention centre project to another site.

Meanwhile, Bloshtein has support from a local non-Jew, Julius Norwilla, who is organising a demonstration at the cemetery, situated in a district known historically as Piramont but in modern Vilnius named as Snipiskes.

Bloshtein says of Norwilla: “He has placed online the posters that will be used: old pictures of the cemetery showing how the stones and prayer halls used to look, and how they could be restored”.

Against this, she alleges that the London-based Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe has continued to provide the Lithuanian authorities with a “supposed Jewish stamp of approval when all other rabbis and organisations in the world have condemned the cemetery’s desecration”.

In view of this, Bloshtein asks UK supporters to contact their MPs or to make a written complaint about the activities of the CPJCE to the UK Charities Commission explaining the background. The CPJCE charity registration number is: 1073225.

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But the Vilnius Jewish Cemetery’s woes must be viewed in the context of troubles plaguing Jewish burial societies and cemetery managements worldwide.

I write this piece after a weekend during which the leaders of the Athens Jewish community awoke on Sabbath morning to discover that “unknown assailants” had smashed headstones on graves in the Jewish section of the Nikaia Cemetery, situated in a southwestern suburb of Athens. Community spokespeople described the scene as ‘repulsive’ adding: “There is no worse sign of a society’s moral decline than desecration of a cemetery and disrespect for the dead”.

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Athens GravestonesBut there’s more than one way to disrespect the dead – and their grieving relatives.

It appears that when the bereaved may fall no lower - bar joining their loved ones in the hereafter - Jewish burial authorities determine to all but extort money with menaces. Far too often, there are stories like that of the British family forced to fund an £8,000.00 funeral after paying burial board fees for 45 years.

My own experience was less about money than contempt: After my mother died, I was treated shabbily by the Orthodox rabbi who conducted her grave headstone setting. He forbade me to read the tribute I had written but also refused to read it himself as he considered my sentiments inappropriate.

More recently, an online group devoted to such Anglo-Jewish problems has likewise reviewed the emotional as well as financial cost of bereavement

One woman in desperately frail health told how after she lost a daughter in her 40s, the cemetery clerk charged £180.00 simply to make an appointment for the headstone setting. Her story and related matters produced a deluge of sympathy and memories of similar experiences.

Some people from an Orthodox background feel so desperate that they are beginning to consider cremation as an option although they are aware that such practice is strictly forbidden.

Certainly, the idea of umbrella synagogue and burial insurance fees seems attractive but not everyone has synagogue membership or likes that solution, often becauseof financial constraints.

Finally, aside from the conventional religious rituals of any faith, I have noted two growing trends among bereaved social media users.

The first, across the religious spectrum, is to retain the accounts of family members or even to open new ‘remembrance’ or ‘memorial’ pages in their names where they mark the anniversary of the deceased’s passing or even birthdays, etc.

In the Jewish community, some people, unable to make the traditional pre- New Year visit to family graves in person, now recite prayers ‘virtually’ over a photograph of family graves.

I am not in favour oif that practice but would like to learn others’ views.

© Natalie Wood (09 May 2018)


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