Jewish American group calls for Evan Gershkovich's release: 'This is personal'

"His story is one that all American Jews can relate to," the group wrote.

May 9, 2023, 1:39 PM

The Jewish Federations of North America, a major umbrella group of Jewish communal organizations around the United States, published an open letter Monday calling for the release of Jewish journalist Evan Gershkovich, who's been jailed in Russia for espionage charges.

Gershkovich, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal's Moscow bureau, was detained in late March by Russian authorities on charges of espionage, which the newspaper and the U.S. government say are baseless. Gershkovich has pleaded not guilty, and the State Department has designated him as "wrongfully detained," which allows the government to take more actions to secure his release.

"We appreciate everything you have done to date and urge you to continue to take every step in your power to bring Evan home. ... For us, this is personal," the Jewish Federations wrote in the letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, which can also be signed by members of the public.

U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich, arrested on espionage charges, stands inside a defendants' cage before a hearing to consider an appeal on his arrest at the Moscow City Court in Moscow, April 18, 2023.
Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images

The group applauded the State Department's designation of Gershkovich as "wrongly detained" as a "strong signal that we do not consent to Russia’s actions and will do all that we can to bring Evan home" and noted the reporter's detention has "broad policy implications."

But for the coalition of Jewish organizations, Gershkovich's case is "personal."

"[F]or us, this is personal. Evan and his family are members of our American Jewish community. ... Our community stands ready to fully support you and your colleagues in our government and again urges you to use all available tools to bring Evan home as soon as possible," the letter said.

Elana Brotiman, senior vice president for Public Affairs at the Jewish Federations of North America, told ABC News in an interview that work by the local Federation chapter in New Jersey, where Gershkovich's family lives, began "within days of Evan's arrest."

As the national Jewish Federations organization continues to support those efforts and work with government partners, Brotiman said, "the advocacy right now is to make sure that Evan stays front and center ... [and] we will continue to rally as we need to."

Gershkovich was born to Jewish parents who emigrated from the Soviet Union, where Jewish people were subjected to persecution and repression, in 1979. His mother, Ella Milman, told the Wall Street Journal last month that her mother would cover the windows with blankets before lighting ritual candles so that neighbors would not realize that their family was Jewish.

"Like many in our community, Evan was raised with a deep appreciation for the promise of the American dream. His story is one that all American Jews can relate to and has galvanized our community to act to ensure his safe return," the Federations wrote.

The Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich appears in an undated handout image taken in an unknown location.
The Wall Street Journal/via Reuters

The Jewish Federations letter is among other American Jewish initiatives surrounding Gershkovich's detainment. Last month, many people left empty seats for Gershkovich at their Seder meal tables during the holiday of Passover, a nod to the tradition of leaving an empty seat and cup of wine for the prophet Elijah.

Gershkovich is not the only American detainee in Russia. The family of Paul Whelan, another American detained in Russia on espionage charges, has called for more action from the U.S. government in light of the national attention received by Gershkovich and the successful release of two other detainees during the period Whelan was apprehended. Marine Trevor Reed was freed in exchange for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, a convicted drug trafficker, in April 2022, and last December, Brittney Griner, a WNBA player, was repatriated in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the "Merchant of Death."

"We appreciate all of the verbal sentiment of support from the White House, from President Biden, from the Secretary of State, and so on. But it doesn't mean that there's anything moving in Paul's case at this moment. And I think we do worry that it is beginning to languish," David Whelan, Paul's brother, told ABC News Live anchor Linsey Davis in an interview on Monday.

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who was arrested for alleged spying, listens to the verdict in a courtroom at the Moscow City Court in Moscow, June 15, 2020.
Moscow News Agency photo via AP, FILE

Jewish Federations of North America CEO Eric Fingerhut offered prayers "for our brothers and sisters who are in captivity and distress," asking "God [to] have mercy on them and bring them from darkness to light and from slavery to redemption ... swiftly and soon."

"Let us wish and work for the freedom of Evan Gershkovich and all others who are held wrongly in captivity around the world," Fingerhut said during a webinar Monday.

ABC News' Cindy Smith and Bobby Gehlen contributed to this report.

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