JCRC Blog, Jeff Dawson – Rosh Hashanah: A New Year of Advocacy

By Jeff Dawson
Associate Director, Jewish Community Relations Council
Published September 13, 2023

Rosh Hashanah: A New Year of Advocacy to Free Evan Gershkovich, Marc Fogel, Paul Whelan and Vladimir Kara-Murza

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, begins at sundown on Friday, September 15, and is a time for reflection, renewal and introspection. This holiday also reminds us of the possibility of new beginnings and the value of each individual life. In keeping with these values, we cannot turn a blind eye to the plight of Evan Gershkovich, Marc Fogel, Paul Whelan, Vladimir Kara-Murza and other political prisoners who are unjustly detained. I first wrote about these four individuals wrongly imprisoned in Russia in a blog post back in May.

A Letter to Evan Gershkovich for Rosh Hashanah

The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) has initiated a campaign inviting the public to write letters to Jewish-American journalist Evan Gershkovich, who has been held in Russia’s notorious Lefortovo Prison for the past five months on baseless espionage charges. These letters will be compiled into a collective message and delivered to Evan through his legal team. In a season where we gather with family and friends to celebrate a new year, it is crucial to remind Evan and his family that he is not alone—that there is an international community standing in solidarity with him.

Updates on Other Detainees

Marc Fogel

Marc Fogel, a 61-year-old history teacher and Pennsylvania native serving a 14-year sentence in Russia for carrying medical marijuana, has seen recent legislative efforts to secure his release. On June 27, 2023, Pennsylvania Representatives introduced H.R.4388, the Marc Fogel Act, to amend the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery Act and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act. This would obligate the Secretary of State to inform Congress about U.S. nationals detained abroad without a “wrongfully detained” designation. A month later, identical resolutions S.Con.Res.18 and H.Con.Res.60 were introduced in the Senate and House of Representatives, calling for Marc’s immediate release and highlighting his years of service to the United States. In addition to pushing for this legislation to pass, Marc’s family calls on the U.S. to designate him as wrongfully detained, which would trigger formal diplomatic efforts to secure his release.

Paul Whelan

Paul Whelan is a former United States Marine arrested in Russia in 2018 on espionage charges and subsequently sentenced to 16-year years in prison. Recently, a rare video of him inside prison was aired by Russian state media. His sister Elizabeth has been tirelessly advocating for his release, making regular trips to Washington D.C. since his arrest almost five years ago. This week she is meeting with members of Congress and other federal officials in renewed efforts to free Paul and bring additional attention to his case.

Vladimir Kara-Murza

Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Jewish-Russian dissident, survived two Kremlin-ordered poisonings and is serving a 25-year treason sentence for opposing Russia’s war in Ukraine. Recently moved to an undisclosed location from a Moscow detention center, his whereabouts remain unknown. Awarded honorary Canadian citizenship this past June—an honor bestowed on only seven others, including Nelson Mandela—Vladimir is a U.S. permanent resident with a family holding U.S. citizenship. His family urges the U.S. to add him to the Levinson Act list of unlawfully detained persons to improve his chances of release. As he turns 42 in jail, maintaining public awareness of his plight is essential.

How You Can Help

  1. Write a Letter: Participate in JFNA’s Rosh Hashanah letter-writing campaign and let Evan Gershkovich know you stand with him. Say Shana Tova to Evan here.
  2. Reach Out to Representatives: Contact your local Congressional representatives and urge them to support resolutions for the release of Evan, Paul, Marc and Vladimir.
  3. Social Media Advocacy: Use the hashtags #IStandWithEvan, #FreeEvan, #FreeMarcFogel #FreePaulWhelan and #FreeKaraMurza to raise awareness and keep their stories alive.
  4. Community Events: Participate in or organize local rallies, forums, or other events to spread awareness.
  5. Official Websites for Further Action: Visit these official websites to find more detailed action plans, petitions, and updates on each individual’s case: Free Evan Gershkovich, Free Marc Fogel, Free Paul Whelan, and Free Vladimir Kara-Murza.

As Eric Fingerhut, President & CEO of JFNA, said, “Throughout history, the pursuit of freedom has always played a central role in Jewish practice and prayer.” Let this Rosh Hashanah be not just a time for personal growth and renewal but also a time for collective action. Let us remember our responsibility to one another, especially those not free.

Shanah Tovah U’metukah – may you have a good and sweet New Year.