Who frees the captive

Jewish federations working behind the scenes and publicly to help jailed journalist Evan Gershkovich

Senior JFNA official Elana Broitman striving to keep U.S. focused on securing his release, rallying Jewish community. ‘That’s our ethos,’ she says

The Jewish federations network launched a public campaign this week to raise awareness about and support for Jewish Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who has been imprisoned in Russia for the past two months.

While this public effort is only now getting underway, both the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey have been working behind the scenes on Gershkovich’s behalf since his arrest in March.

Elana Broitman, JFNA’s senior vice president for public affairs, has taken the lead role in coordinating the organization’s efforts with the U.S. government, while the southern New Jersey federation has maintained regular contact with Greshkovich’s parents, Ella Milman and Mikhail Gershkovich. The Greshkoviches fled the Soviet Union in the late 1970s, first moving to New York and then settling in Princeton, N.J.

“The federation in southern New Jersey, run by Jen Weiss, they’re the ones who launched the work right away,” Broitman told eJewishPhilanthropy this week. “And as we always do, the national [JFNA] works with any of our federations on their biggest issues to really amplify their efforts and because this is really a national issue, we’re able to really give support with our additional connectivity in Washington.”

Gershkovich was arrested on March 29 by Russia’s Federal Security Service on charges of espionage, the first time an American journalist has been charged with such crimes since the Cold War. The Wall Street Journal and the U.S. government have both “vehemently denied” the allegations against Gershkovich. The U.S. State Department has called for him to be released immediately. President Joe Biden has called his arrest “totally illegal.”

Gershkovich faces up a sentence of up to 20 years in prison if he is convicted of espionage. Last month, a Russian court ruled that Gershkovich would remain behind bars until at least his next hearing, which is scheduled for May 29. At that hearing, prosecutors can again request to extend his remand.

Broitman praised the U.S. government for its rapid and unequivocal support for Gershkovich. “In Evan’s case, the U.S. government very quickly designated him as unlawfully detained. The State Department and our ambassadors at the U.N. have been working their channels. The presidents spoke about it. So they’re doing the right things,” she said.

Broitman said the federations are therefore focused on two main things: One is to keep the issue in the public eye to ensure that Gershkovich’s case remains a priority for the U.S. government so it maintains pressure on Russia and works to secure his release as quickly as possible. And the other is to send a message to Gershkovich himself.

“Evan gets news of what’s happening, and so our ability to keep his spirits up is also really important,” she said.

The local Russian Jewish community has made efforts to reach out to Gershkovich in prison, but these have largely been for naught, according to Baruch Gorin, a spokesman for the community.

“For Passover, they let us bring him matzahs and grape juice with a Haggadah. But other than that they haven’t allowed us to be in touch with him or send him anything. The chief rabbi sent a letter requesting permission to meet with him, but he hasn’t yet received a response,” Gorin told eJP this week.

For Passover, Gershkovich’s colleagues at the Wall Street Journal launched a social media campaign calling on Jews to leave a seat open at their Seder table in Gershkovich’s honor.

With its new public campaign, the JFNA is looking to make it clear that the entire American Jewish community is invested in Gershkovich’s welfare, Broitman said. “We’ve been asked, ‘Why is the community so engaged?’ It’s not because we would suggest that Evan was detained because he’s Jewish. But, as a Jew, he will always have – like any member of our community is going to – the backing of our entire community. That’s our ethos,” she said.

To launch this public diplomacy effort, this week, JFNA hosted a virtual rally in support of Gershkovich, which was attended by some 500 people. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), CEO of the Committee to Protect Journalists Jodie Ginsberg, Washington bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal Paul Beckett and Jewish Federation leaders all spoke at the webinar, expressing their outrage at Russia and their support for Gershkovich.

“As the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I know how ruthless and brutal Putin’s regime is and so do Evan’s parents,” Menendez said. “Their families survived the Holocaust and the Stalin persecution and came to America in search of a better life for them and for their children. And they raised a son, not only with an understanding of where he came from, but with a desire to uncover the truth. And that’s what he did. He sought out and told the truth to Russia and to the world.”

Broitman said her work for now is focused on keeping the issue a priority for the government and preparing for next steps should Gershkovich be convicted.

“We’ve been in touch with the Hill, in both the House and the Senate, and with the administration, the State Department and the White House. And as I said, they quickly moved on this. And so we are working to create support that does not undermine anything that’s already going on,” she said.

“If Evan continues to be held in detention, if he’s sentenced at the end of May, there are likely to be additional efforts that we may want to take, which possibly call for some additional advocacy. [The government has] done the right thing until now, so it’s about keeping it up on the front burner,” Broitman said.

She added that everything the JFNA is doing is coordinated with Gershkovich’s parents “to make sure that nothing we’re doing is going to be traumatic for them or that it is something they would disagree with.”

Broitman said Russia has a “sort of a playbook” for these types of situations, which often entails only entering into serious negotiations once a prisoner has been convicted. “That is discouraging, but that may well be the case,” she said.

Alongside the virtual rally on Monday night, JFNA also published a letter that it plans to send to Secretary of State Tony Blinken, which both applauds the government’s efforts and demonstrates American Jewry’s interest in the case. Though the letter has been made public, it hasn’t yet been sent out as JFNA is waiting until it has a large number of signatories to demonstrate to the U.S. government that there is “significant support” for Gershkovich in the American Jewish community, Broitman said.

She added that JFNA was also starting to look into how best to reach out to foreign governments to advocate on Gershkovich’s behalf. “There are some very large countries that have influence in Moscow. And so there’s been a lot of discussion about how to get those countries to be interested,” she said.