On Sunday, April 15, Michael Kotzin, Senior Counselor to the President of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago; Steven Dishler, Director of International Affairs for the Jewish Community Relations Council of JUF; Dan Elbaum, Director of the American Jewish Committee in Chicago; and Eugene Steingold, a Chicago area lawyer, met with a delegation of Lithuanian diplomats, including Minister of Culture Arūnas Gelūnas and Lithuania's Ambassador to the United States Zygimanttas Pavilionis.
The discussion, which took place in Oak Brook during a convention of Lithuanian diplomats posted in North American and Mexico, focused on ways to recognize and honor the Lithuanian Jewish heritage and promote relations between Lithuania and the American Jewish community. In his remarks, Ambassador Pavilionis recalled the cultural and religious achievements of the Jews of Lithuania and the dark period during the Nazi occupation.
After Skaiste Aniuliene, Consul General of Lithuania to Chicago, described programming conducted locally through her office, Kotzin offered a Jewish community perspective. Noting his family roots in Lithuania, he recalled a trip he made there in 1997 with Senator Richard J. Durbin and Chicago-based Lithuanian American community leaders Stanley Balzekas and Alexander Domanskis, who was also on the program for this event. "We welcome and applaud this outreach aimed at strengthening relations between Lithuania and the American Jewish community," Kotzin said. "It is a significant initiative. Together with celebration of the rich Jewish civilization that existed in Lithuania, it is important that there be an honest discussion of the fate of Lithuanian Jewry during the Holocaust and of the unfinished business from that era that is yet to be resolved."
Elbaum and Consul General Aniuliene discussed the strong relations that exist between AJC and the Lithuanian consulate in Chicago that have contributed to a greater understanding of the Jewish community's strong connection to Israel and concerns over Iran's policies.
Dishler shared that he too had family roots in Lithuania, but cautioned that it might be difficult to engage the younger generation in their Lithuanian heritage. "I'm the third generation of my family in America. My grandparents came to this country to start a new life, to be part of a new way of being Jewish. For me, being Jewish is connection to my community, the Jewish people, and to Israel. The Lithuania of my grandparents is not a central part of who I am."
In his closing remarks, Ambassador Pavilionis stressed the importance of continuing to address Lithuania's difficult history and the need to counter present-day expressions of anti-Semitism. He also described Lithuanian's strong relations with Israel.
The session was also organized by a newly-formed Washington-based Jewish-Lithuanian project whose director, Harley Felstein, talked about the group's goals. All the speakers at the session endorsed the value of continuing to explore opportunities to strengthen relations and honor Lithuania's Jewish heritage.