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Rosh Hashanah letter-writing campaign launched for US journalist detained in Russia

JTA — Since he was arrested by Russian authorities in March, one of Evan Gershkovich’s few connections to the outside world has been a stream of letters from his friends and family.

But soon, his circle of correspondents is due to expand. In the days surrounding Rosh Hashanah, people from around the world will be sending Gershkovich letters, all wishing him a happy new year.

Gershkovich, 31, a Wall Street Journal reporter and ​​son of Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union, has been detained since March on charges of espionage that he, the Journal and the United States government vehemently deny. He has yet to stand trial.

In the months since his arrest, Jews have repeatedly employed religious rituals to call for his freedom. Now, ahead of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year that begins on the evening of Friday, Sept. 15, the Jewish Federations of North America has launched a letter-writing campaign to send Gershkovich cards wishing him a “Shana tova,” or happy new year.

“We are deeply concerned for Evan’s well-being,” Eric Fingerhut, the group’s CEO, said in a statement. “As Jews around the world will be gathering with loved ones during Rosh Hashanah, one of the most important acts we can do as a collective community is to let him know that we are thinking of him and standing with him in solidarity.”

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A Jewish Federations spokesperson said that the group expects a “substantial” number of letters to come in. But to reach Gershkovich, the spokesperson said, Russian policy dictates that all letters must first be translated into Russian and vetted. To abbreviate that process, Federations staff will collate excerpts from the letters into one “collective” letter that reflects the themes of the greeting cards, and notes the number of people who sent them, while condensing their total length.

US journalist Evan Gershkovich (R) is escorted outside the Lefortovsky Court in Moscow on August 24, 2023. Gershkovich was detained in March 2023 on spying charges during a reporting trip to the Urals, a court spokesperson told AFP on August 23, 2023. (Photo by Natalia KOLESNIKOVA / AFP)

The “collective” letter will be sent to Gershkovich via his lawyers. The full texts of the letters themselves will be sent to Gershkovich’s parents, who live in New Jersey and are aware of the campaign. Letters can be submitted until Sept. 15.

Jewish ritual has figured prominently in previous calls for Gershkovich’s freedom. Shortly after his arrest in March, Shayndi Raice, a fellow reporter at the Journal who is based in Israel, called for Jews around the world to leave an empty space for Gershkovich at their Seder tables. Her call, which was shared widely, echoed a 1960s campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

“As you celebrate freedom, join us in demanding freedom for Evan,” Raice wrote on X, the social network formerly known as Twitter.

Gershkovich’s pretrial detainment has been extended multiple times since his arrest, and US officials’ hopes for his release are focused on the possibility of a prisoner swap, which has encountered obstacles in recent weeks.