From Washington to Shnipshok:
The Role of Torah Caucas in Helping to Save the Hallowed Shnipshok Cemetary in Vilna
By Chaim Gold
Two seemingly disparate events on different sides of the world held just weeks apart from each other with seemingly no connection. In today’s interconnected global world, however, there is much more connection than meets the eye.
Event number one: Held in Lithuania in the Shnipshok Cemetery near Vilna, January, 2022. It was a freezing cold day, the snow was falling but that did not stop a delegation of leading Rabbis and Torah sages from Israel, Europe and the United States, under the auspices of the Dirshu Torah organization, from converging on the cemetery to pray. They came to express their deep concern over the fact that the ancient Jewish cemetery, where there are more than 50,000 graves, is being slated for “redevelopment.” The sanctity of the remains of generations of Jews buried there, among them leading sages of the Jewish people whose Torah works are studied by Jews the world over until this very day, is paramount. The Rabbis felt that they had to express their deepest concern – right there at the cemetery in Vilna – to the Lithuanian government and the government at the local level, who until then had not been very receptive to the pleas of the international Jewish Community.
Event number two: Washington DC, January 2022. A new congressional caucus is inaugurated. The Torah Caucus. Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter, a primary advisor to the caucus addressed that inaugural session, “Today, the inauguration of the ‘Torah Caucus of the United States Congress’ shows the vitality of American democracy. The fact that, less than a century after the Jewish people were almost obliterated, here in Washington, lawmakers are coming together to advance Torah and its ideals is nothing short of remarkable. This development is great for the Jewish people, but it is also great for America!”
The Power of the Torah Caucus
The Torah Caucus, short for its full name, “Caucus for the Advancement of Torah Values,” was established in order to be a great force in ensuring the preservation of Torah values for the Jewish community and beyond. The bipartisan, new caucus has pledged to advocate on behalf of Torah values in the corridors of American power and beyond.
The bipartisan group of lawmakers at the inaugural event, included congressional stalwarts such as Congresswoman Kat Cammack of Florida (R), Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania (R), Congressman Henry Cuellar of Texas (D), Congressman Don Bacon of Nebraska (R), Congressman Brian Steil of Wisconsin (R), and Congressman Dan Mueser of Pennsylvania (R).
In fact, congressman Don Bacon of Nebraska, the Chairman of the caucus, became so enamored with Rav Hofstedter at their meetings together that he sent a special congratulatory letter to Rav Hofstedter in honor of the recent Dirshu World Siyum of the second machzor of Daf HaYomi B’Halacha. In the letter he said,
“Dear Rabbi Hofstedter,
“We wish to take this opportunity to congratulate all of the participants of Dirshu International on the upcoming World Siyum, marking the completion of the second machzor of six chalakim of sefer Mishnah Berurah in Dirshu’s Daf Hayomi B’Halacha Program…
“We wish to commend you on all of the work you continue doing with Dirshu. Your activities are not limited to the confines of the United States; but instead extend beyond our nation’s borders to a global effort to rekindle Jewish scholarship to the level it was at pre-dating the Holocaust. It’s amazing to us the sheer amount of Orthodox Jews that are positively impacted by Dirshu’s programs thanks to your leadership.
“In light of the aforementioned, we wish to take this opportunity to congratulate Dirshu and all of its participants on this remarkable milestone and accomplishment. Mazal Tov to each and every one of you!”
How does this connect with Shnipshok? The answer is that when it was learned that this hallowed cemetery that had been the original burial place of the Vilna Gaon and other giants was being scheduled for development which meant desecration of the remains of so many generations of Jews, Mr. Bacon, as the Chair of the Torah Caucus, was called upon. Rep. Bacon rallied likeminded lawmakers and influencers in Washington. He was especially effective, and his words carried great weight because Rep. Bacon is a member of the powerful House Armed Services Committee and is also the Chairman of the House Baltic Caucus.
Mr. Bacon as chair of the Torah Caucus, together with efforts from numerous other organizations and lawmakers caused the Lithuanian government to have a change of heart. As a result, the plan by the Turtos Bank, the Vilnius City Council and Lithuanian government was recently placed on hold, following international condemnation of the proposal.
The government declared that instead, they would be restoring the site of the cemetery, which was largely plowed over by the Soviet government in the 1950’s, to the local Jewish Community.
The Battle is Not Over
The battle is certainly not yet over. Firstly, “restored to the Jewish Community,” does not necessarily mean that it will be preserved. The local community leaders are not religious and may not have the requisite sensitivity to ensure that the sanctity of the cemetery be preserved thereby allowing those that are resting there to rest in peace.
Before the war in Ukraine broke out, extensive efforts and negotiations were taking place between numerous Jewish organizations and others that had influenced. The Torah Caucus was also using its considerable influence to promote the ideals of kavod hameis, honor for the dead that is such an essential component of the Jewish religion.
As soon as the war broke out, all efforts were suspended as easing the plight of the Jews in those lands became the primary objective and concern of Jews the world over.
Nevertheless, what is clearly apparent is that it is imperative for the wellbeing of the Jewish people and for the continued ability for us to thrive as Torah observant Jews in this country and in the world, to cultivate friendships with government bodies, powerful lawmakers and influential friends. The relationship between Dirshu, Congressman Bacon and numerous others and the establishment of the Torah Caucus at the beginning of this year has already proven itself to be a valuable asset for the worldwide Jewish community.