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Rosh Hashana — the Jewish New Year — starts Friday night, beginning a 10-day period of prayer, self-reflection and repentance.
Many American Jews will observe the holiday by attending services, hearing the sounds of a shofar (ram’s horn), lighting candles and eating symbolic foods, among other traditions.
And a considerable number are also sending New Year’s well-wishes to a single stranger thousands of miles away: Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who has been imprisoned in Russia since March.
Gershkovich, the son of Jewish parents who emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1979, was raised in New Jersey and had been living and working in Russia for six years at the time of his arrest on espionage charges that he denies.
The U.S. is working to secure his release, with President Biden saying in July that he is “serious about a prisoner exchange.”
Gershkovich’s family, employer and other supporters have been increasingly vocal about his plight in recent days, in hopes that other countries will show their support when they come to New York for high-level U.N. General Assembly meetings next week.
More than 2,000 letters show the strength of community
In the meantime, Jewish people around the world want Gershkovich to know he’s not alone.
Jewish Federations of North America, an umbrella organization representing hundreds of Jewish communities throughout the U.S. and Canada, organized a campaign inviting people to submit a letter to Gershkovich ahead of the holiday through an online form.
The organization combined portions of some of those notes into a “collective letter” that it has already sent to Gershkovich’s lawyers, spokesperson Alisa Bodner told NPR by email. It will compile the individual letters into a book to deliver to Gershkovich’s family after the holiday.
More than 2,200 letters had poured in from 21 countries as of Thursday night, according to Bodner. The submission form closes at 6 p.m. ET Friday.
“We tried to incorporate a broad range of themes into the collective letter, from those that were deeply personal to those that drew on Jewish themes to those that captured the solidarity around the globe for him,” Bodner said.
A sampling of nearly a dozen letters shared with NPR come from places as varied as U.S. states such as Minnesota, Florida and New York, to South Africa and London. And they were written by people of all ages, from a 90-year-old woman in Toronto to more than 100 students at a Jewish school in Baltimore.
Eric Fingerhut, the president and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America, told NPR in a statement that collective responsibility is a core value of Jewish faith, and called the campaign a powerful example of the strength of the community.
“Our hope is that these heartfelt messages will serve as a reminder for Evan that he is never alone, and that so many people are keeping him in their hearts and prayers,” Fingerhut added.
Starting the new year with strength and solidarity
One rabbi on Long Island wrote that the apples and honey eaten during the holiday meal symbolize the hope for a sweet year ahead “and we extend that hope to you, believing that better days will come.”
“I can envision your freedom,” wrote someone who identified as a Russian-speaking Jew born in Ukraine. They told Gershkovich that people are eager for the day when he can reunite with his loved ones, and until then are “standing by your side, and sending you strength, love and unwavering support.”
Another well-wisher, from London, said it’s “heart-wrenching” to think about Gershkovich alone and in such a challenging situation, especially while so many people are celebrating the holiday with loved ones.
“But remember: throughout our history, Jews have faced seemingly insurmountable challenges,” they added. “And every time, with unwavering spirit and unity, we have overcome.”
Perhaps the most famous person to write in is Natan Sharansky, a prominent Soviet dissident and Israeli politician who spent a year-and-a-half at Lefortovo prison — where Gershkovich is currently being held — in the 1970s.
Sharansky referred to it as his “alma mater” in his note to Gershkovich, in which he offered words of encouragement and advice.
“I’m sure it will be the year of your liberation, thanks to our prayers, the Jewish solidarity, and the support of your friends and colleagues,” he wrote from Jerusalem. “It is very important while resisting the pressure to see a bigger world picture in mind and to be optimistic.”
His supporters want the U.N. to take action next week
The holiday and campaign come amid growing efforts — including by Gershkovich’s family and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — to bring the 31-year-old home.
Gershkovich, an American citizen who was accredited to work as a journalist in Russia, was arrested by Russia’s Federal Security Service during a reporting trip to Yekaterinburg on March 29.
He has since been held in Moscow on charges of espionage that he, the Wall Street Journal and the U.S. government vehemently deny — and could carry up to 20 years in prison. Last month, Gershkovich’s pretrial detention was extended by another three months to the end of November.
Earlier this week, lawyers representing Dow Jones, the Journal‘s publisher, asked a U.N. group to declare Gershkovich “arbitrarily detained.” The group does not have enforcement authority, but such a move would raise pressure on Russia.
Lawyers argued in a letter that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to use Gershkovich to “gain leverage over — and extract a ransom from — the United States,” and called his detention “a flagrant violation of many of his fundamental human rights.”
“We want the world to be able to see it’s not just the U.S. that designated Evan as wrongfully detained,” Jay Conti, executive vice president and general counsel at Dow Jones, explained at a U.N. panel discussion on Tuesday, “but the U.N. has taken a look at this under their own separate standards and have made an independent judgment that he has been arbitrarily detained and he should be released.”
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said at a Wednesday briefing that Russia’s actions are “beyond cruel” and a “violation of international law.” She added the U.S. “will not rest until Evan and Paul and all wrongfully detained Americans are home, safe and sound.”
Gershkovich’s parents and sister have also appealed to U.N. members for their support ahead of the general debate of its General Assembly, when leaders from around the world will gather in New York next week. They spoke at U.N. headquarters on Wednesday at Thomas-Greenfield’s invitation.
“We urge all world leaders to stand with Evan and what he represents: the basic right to a free press and freedom of expression,” said Mikhail Gershkovich, Evan’s father. “These rights are bedrock principles of the United Nations.”
He and his wife, Ella Milman, spoke of how challenging the last six months have been for their family, though they said they’ve drawn comfort from being able to correspond with their son and see his strength. (They also traveled from Philadelphia to Moscow in May to see him briefly at his trial.)
“We are glad he’s kept his sense of humor – teasing me that the prison food reminds him of my cooking,” Milman said, according to the Associated Press.
Danielle Gershkovich, Evan’s sister, said the family should be planning for his birthday next month, not having to “remind the world that Evan is innocent and journalism is not a crime.”
“We ask that world leaders help find a solution to secure Evan’s release,” she added. “If this can happen to my brother, it can happen to any journalist trying to report the news.”