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A new symbol at some Passover seders: an empty seat for Evan Gershkovich, Jewish journalist jailed in Russia

(JTA) — Shayndi Raice, a Wall Street Journal reporter based in Israel, is hoping that Jews around the world dedicate a portion of their Passover seder this week to one of her colleagues, currently detained in a Russian prison.

“This Passover, please consider setting a place at your Seder table for @evangershkovich,” Raice tweeted on Sunday. “As you celebrate freedom, join us in demanding freedom for Evan.”

The call — echoing a tactic used in the 20th-century campaign for the freedom of Soviet Jews — grew louder on Monday as it was shared by prominent personalities from tech journalist Kara Swisher to the former chief rabbi of Moscow to Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of New York City’s Central Synagogue, who said she would be leaving an empty chair at her own seder in honor of Gershkovich, a Moscow correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

Gershkovich, 31, has been charged with espionage, in a move that human rights organizations are decrying and the Biden administration is fighting. He was arrested Wednesday while he was dining at a restaurant in the city of Yekaterinburg, about 800 miles east of Moscow in the Ural Mountains.

The Wall Street Journal has denied the allegations against Gershkovich, who pleaded not guilty during a court appearance last week, according to Russian state and international media. He reportedly has not been able to speak to an attorney representing him while he is held in the notorious Lefortovo Prison, whose past inmates include the famous Soviet Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky.

Gershkovich is the first American journalist since the Cold War to face spying charges in Russia, which carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. People charged with espionage are almost always convicted in Russia, according to the New York Times.

“Let him go,” President Joe Biden said Friday about his message to Russian authorities in Gershkovich’s case, using a phrase that itself is redolent of the Passover story and the Soviet Jewry movement.

The arrest has propelled Gershkovich to the front lines of deepening tensions between the United States and Russia. It has also drawn attention to Gershkovich’s background as the child of Jews who fled the Soviet Union — and renewed questions about whether people like him can be safe in Russia today.

“He cares a lot about his identity as a Jew, and especially his identity as the son of Soviet Jewish immigrants,” his college roommate Jeremy Berke told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I think that was a large part of why he wanted to go back to Russia.”

Gershkovich was born in New York City to Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union who left in the late 1970s, when the Communist state briefly opened the gates to emigration for some of its Jewish citizens.

His father is from Odessa — today in Ukraine — and his mother is from St. Petersburg, Time Magazine reported. According to an account published by the Wall Street Journal, the only outlet to which his family has spoken, his mother fled Russia using Israeli documents with her mother, a Ukrainian Holocaust survivor, after hearing rumors that Jews were going to be deported to Siberia.

Gershkovich grew up speaking Russian at home in New Jersey, where he graduated from Princeton High School before heading to Bowdoin College in Maine. After college, he got a job first at the New York Times before moving to Moscow in 2017 to report for the Moscow Times, an English-language news organization that has been a launching pad for multiple high-profile Russia reporters. His reporting there included coverage of Hanukkah celebrations in Moscow.  He was hired by the Wall Street Journal in 2021.

His mother told the Journal that Gershkovich had become more interested in his Jewish identity while in Russia, taking her to a synagogue that she had been warned as a child never to enter. “That’s when Evan started to understand us better,” she said.

“Part of his mission was to not only explain Russia to a Western audience, but to really kind of pierce the bubble and tell the stories of Russians themselves, which was something he was able to do, because he’s fluent in Russian,” Berke told JTA.

He said his friend sought to tell “stories that weren’t necessarily just the purely kind of economic stories that you saw coming out of the country, but that were really about what the people were doing — you know, people in synagogues, people in nightclubs, like all aspects of Russian society.”

Like many foreign journalists, Gershkovich left Russia in February 2022, after Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine and turned overnight into a pariah state that intensified its crackdowns on dissenters. But he returned later in the year on the longstanding assumption that foreigners would be insulated from the harsh treatment that Russian journalists can face.

“By detaining the American journalist Evan Gershkovich, Russia has crossed the Rubicon and sent a clear message to foreign correspondents that they will not be spared from the ongoing purge of the independent media in the country.” said the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Gershkovich, drop all charges against him, and let the media work freely and without fear of reprisal.”

Gershkovich had most recently reported on Russia’s declining economic position and was reportedly in Yekaterinburg reporting on the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary force, and Nizhny Tagil, a factory town where Russian tanks are made.

Wagner’s owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, joked about Gershkovich and other journalists being found in a mass grave or a torture chamber when reached by the Daily Beast last week. Prigozhin said he had not known about Gershkovich’s arrest at that time.

Julia Ioffe, a fellow Russian-American Jew and journalist, said after Gershkovich’s arrest that the Kremlin takes criticism from people of their background differently than from other journalists.

“Although he was born in the U.S., his parents were immigrants from the Soviet Union, Jewish immigrants,” Ioffe told CNN. “There is a sense in Moscow, especially in the foreign ministry and in the Kremlin, that people of this background — my background — they are particularly sensitive to … our criticism. They feel that it is a different kind of betrayal.”

WSJ’s Evan Gershkovich, detained in Russia for espionage, is about the age @juliaioffe and I were when we met as Moscow reporters. We spoke today about what Gershkovich is facing, particularly as a reporter whose family fled the Soviet Union and how Russia is ‘banking’ hostages. pic.twitter.com/gsUbZz2N0q

— Alex Marquardt (@MarquardtA) March 30, 2023

The former chief rabbi of Moscow who fled Russia shortly after the invasion of Ukraine last year suggested that Russia had targeted Gershkovich because of his identity.

“He just happened to be Jewish, right?” Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt sarcastically tweeted last week.

Goldschmidt has emerged as a prominent critic of the Russian government after leaving the country last year, saying that as a prominent rabbi he faced pressure to support Putin’s war.

“When we look back over Russian history, whenever the political system was in danger you saw the government trying to redirect the anger and discontent of the masses towards the Jewish community,” he told the Guardian in an interview late last year.

Gershkovich is not the first American to be arrested in Russia amid rising tensions between the countries. Last year, the basketball star Britney Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison on drug charges, then traded to the United States in exchange for the release of Victor Bout, a Russian convicted of dealing arms.

In a social media post this weekend, Griner called on the United States to “continue to use every tool possible to bring Evan and all wrongfully detained Americans home.”

The Wall Street Journal has made Gershkovich’s reporting free and produced a video highlighting his importance as a journalist. Meanwhile, Gershkovich’s Jewish supporters are putting their own spin on the campaigns to raise awareness of Gershkovich’s plight and lobby for his release.

“Dear friends, if you are in shul this weekend, please say an extra tefillah for the release of @evangershkovich, a @WSJ reporter and son of Soviet Jewish immigrants, who was detained this week by the Russian government,” tweeted Chavie Lieber, a Wall Street Journal reporter, last week. (Lieber was a JTA reporter in 2012 and 2013.)

On Monday, Raice’s call for a place at Passover seders for Gershkovich was being shared widely.

“A worthy endeavour. However, Evan is not the only political prisoner in Russia and Byelorussia. Thousands of people are being held in prisons in Russia and Byelorussia, among them Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Kara Murza, Ilya Yashin and others, many, who are of Jewish descent,” Goldschmidt, the former Moscow chief rabbi, tweeted. “We should remember all of them, when we celebrate freedom at the Seder table Wednesday evening!”


The post A new symbol at some Passover seders: an empty seat for Evan Gershkovich, Jewish journalist jailed in Russia appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Obituaries

Dr. NATHAN WISEMAN

Wiseman, Nathan Elliot
1944 – 2023
Nathan, our beloved husband, Dad, and Zaida, died unexpectedly on December 13, 2023. Nathan was born on December 16, 1944, in Winnipeg, MB, the eldest of Sam and Cissie Wiseman’s three children.
He is survived by his loving wife Eva; children Sam (Natalie) and Marni (Shane); grandchildren Jacob, Jonah, Molly, Isabel, Nicole, and Poppy; brother David (Sherrill); sister Barbara (Ron); sister-in-law Agi (Sam) and many cousins, nieces, and nephews.
Nathan grew up in the north end of Winnipeg surrounded by his loving family. He received his MD from the University of Manitoba in 1968, subsequently completed his General Surgery residency at the University of Manitoba and went on to complete a fellowship in Paediatric Surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital of Harvard University. His surgeon teachers and mentors were world renowned experts in the specialty, and even included a Nobel prize winner.
His practice of Paediatric Surgery at Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg spanned almost half a century. He loved his profession and helping patients, even decades later often recounting details about the many kiddies on whom he had operated. Patients and their family members would commonly approach him on the street and say, “Remember me Dr. Wiseman?”. And he did! His true joy was caring for his patients with compassion, patience, unwavering commitment, and excellence. He was a gifted surgeon and leaves a profound legacy. He had no intention of ever fully retiring and operated until his very last day. He felt privileged to have the opportunity to mentor, support and work with colleagues, trainees, nurses, and others health care workers that enriched his day-to-day life and brought him much happiness and fulfillment. He was recognized with many awards and honors throughout his career including serving as Chief of Surgery of Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg, President of the Canadian Association of Pediatric Surgeons, and as a Governor of the American College of Surgeons. Most importantly of all he helped and saved the lives of thousands and thousands of Manitoba children. His impact on the generations of children he cared for, and their families, is truly immeasurable.
Nathan’s passion for golf was ignited during his childhood summers spent at the Winnipeg Beach Golf Course. Southwood Golf and Country Club has been his second home since 1980. His game was excellent and even in his last year he shot under his age twice! He played an honest “play as it lies” game. His golf buddies were true friends and provided him much happiness both on and off the course for over forty years. However, his passion for golf extended well beyond the eighteenth hole. He immersed himself in all aspects of the golf including collecting golf books, antiques, and memorabilia. He was a true scholar of the game, reading golf literature, writing golf poetry, and even rebuilding and repairing antique golf clubs. Unquestionably, his knowledge and passion for the game was limitless.
Nathan approached his many woodworking and workshop projects with zeal and creativity, and he always had many on the go. During the winter he was an avid curler, and in recent years he also enjoyed the study of Yiddish. Nathan never wasted any time and lived his life to the fullest.
Above all, Nathan was a loving husband, father, grandfather, son, father-in-law, son-in-law, uncle, brother, brother-in-law, cousin, and granduncle. He loved his family and lived for them, and this love was reciprocated. He met his wife Eva when he was a 20-year-old medical student, and she was 18 years old. They were happily married for 56 years. They loved each other deeply and limitlessly and were proud of each other’s accomplishments. He loved the life and the family they created together. Nathan was truly the family patriarch, an inspiration and a mentor to his children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, and many others. He shared his passion for surgery and collecting with his son and was very proud to join his daughter’s medical practice (he loved Thursdays). His six grandchildren were his pride and joy and the centre of his world.
Throughout his life Nathan lived up to the credo “May his memory be a blessing.” His life was a blessing for the countless newborns, infants, toddlers, children, and teenagers who he cared for, for his colleagues, for his friends and especially for his family. We love him so much and there are no words to describe how much he will be missed.
A graveside funeral was held at the Shaarey Zedek cemetery on December 15, 2023. Pallbearers were his loving grandchildren. The family would like to extend their gratitude to Rabbi Yosef Benarroch of Adas Yeshurun Herzlia Congregation.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Manitoba, in the name of Dr. Nathan Wiseman.

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