How a determined Jewish community helped bring home Danny Fenster, the journalist imprisoned in Myanmar
(JTA) — HUNTINGTON WOODS, Michigan — For nearly six months, anyone driving through this well-manicured and heavily Jewish residential Detroit suburb was guaranteed to spot the yard signs. They were red, white and blue, with a large black-and-white illustration of a bearded young man sporting a beanie and a faint smile.
“FREE FENSTER,” the signs proclaimed in large text. There were other slogans, as well: “Protect The Press.” “#BringDannyHome.”
Today, many of the signs are still there. But they have new, triumphant additions, much like the new marquee signage on Detroit Fleat, a hip bar-and-food-truck hangout joint in neighboring Ferndale: “Welcome Home Danny!”
Danny Fenster, a 37-year-old Jewish journalist from Huntington Woods, had been held since May 24 in a Myanmar prison by the country’s military junta, which had seized power in a violent coup earlier this year.
The charges against Fenster, which international observers unanimously agreed were unlawful and political in nature, stemmed from his work at English-language Myanmar news outlets; he had been arrested while preparing to board a flight at Yangon International Airport to see his family for a surprise visit home.
On Nov. 15, Fenster was released, and reunited with his family — parents Buddy and Rose and older brother Bryan — outside JFK Airport in New York the next day. Soon after, the Fensters returned to Huntington Woods, where Danny got cleaned up with a trip to a local hair salon.
“There’s a really emotional, Jewish story here about the way the Jewish community rallied behind this,” Democratic Congressman Andy Levin, whose Michigan district includes Huntington Woods, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Through a spokesperson, the newly reunited Fenster family declined an interview with JTA. But they’ve been generous in their appreciation for the community that advocated for Danny’s release.
“From the bottom of my heart I want to thank all of you who friended me and reached out during my days of despair,” Buddy wrote on his Facebook page after his son’s return, a message later reposted to the #FreeDannyFenster Facebook group. “Your support kept me and my family from hitting rock bottom. If only the world had some of the heart and compassion that you all have there would be less pain in it.”
The Fensters spearheaded the “Free Fenster” campaign, which started with lawn signs and shirts and became a global movement. In early June, less than two weeks into Danny’s imprisonment, the family held a rally for him at the Huntington Woods Recreation Center, a town square flanked by an elementary school, a public pool, the local library and a large field where children’s summer day camps congregate. Photographs and news reports from the event, showing determined, largely Jewish neighbors presenting Danny’s name and face, ran in media outlets around the world.
One of the attendees at that rally was Levin. He became the foremost legislative figure advocating for Fenster’s release in Washington.
“The first I heard of it was from members of the Jewish community, the day it happened,” Levin told JTA. “The concern and involvement of the Jewish community was literally the beginning of my involvement.”
Levin had had some experience working with government critics in hiding in Haiti as part of his pre-congressional work with Human Rights Watch, but he’d never before worked on any cases of U.S. citizens being taken hostage. Nevertheless, in his view, he had a clear mandate to get involved: Every time he visited his district, including when he marched in Huntington Woods’ annual Fourth of July parade, Fenster was the top issue on his constituents’ minds.
Besides which, Levin said, whenever he sat down to meet with a Detroit-area Jewish organization — from the local federation to the Detroit chapters of the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Resource Center — “it was inconceivable that I would have a meeting where the first issue wasn’t, ‘What’s up with Danny?’”
Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park, Michigan, the Reform congregation the Fenster parents attend and where Bryan Fenster sent his children to day camps, mobilized for Fenster’s release as well. Member bulletins contained calls to action on his behalf, and temple board members spoke from the bimah wearing “Free Fenster” shirts.
“There are a lot of folks who feel close to Rose and Buddy and who have kids the same age as Bryan and Danny,” Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh said about the temple’s advocacy efforts.
Zerwekh included prayers for Danny in regular Shabbat services until his release, and also heard from local Orthodox congregations that were praying for Fenster. “I am proud of the whole Jewish community on this,” he said.
Members of Danny’s extended family have played crucial roles in advocating for his release, as well. Amy Kurzweil, his cousin, is a cartoonist who has been published in the New Yorker and is currently on a fellowship in Berlin. When Kurzweil heard the news about Danny’s imprisonment, she put out a call among her fellow cartoonists as part of the #BringDannyHome campaign to draw portraits of Fenster to keep his name and face in the public eye. Artists from across the globe responded to the call.
“We come from a family of immigrants. My grandmother is a Holocaust survivor, and there’s this tradition of struggle in our family that I think Danny has picked up on as a journalist. He’s drawn to stories of regular people who are in difficult situations who are struggling for dignity and their quality of life,” Amy Kurzweil said in a July interview with PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for global literary free expression. “We have to talk about this because we feel that the thing that helps the most is just keeping Danny’s story alive.”
Amy’s brother Ethan, a partner at tech entrepreneurship firm Bessemer with a large social media following, and their father Ray Kurzweil, a prominent tech futurist and inventor, also used their contacts to advocate for Danny’s release.
Collectively, Levin said, the families’ advocacy played a huge role in keeping Danny’s name in the headlines and applying pressure to the US to figure out how to get him out of prison.
Danny’s strong connections to the Detroit area were also evident despite his years spent living away from Detroit; the previous year, he’d filed a dispatch from Myanmar for a Detroit outlet about a local cafe owner obsessed with Eminem.
News of Danny’s condition was difficult to come by during his detainment, and his legal hearings were largely held behind closed doors, with no opportunity given to his lawyer to push for his release. Early on, Levin said, the family learned that he was being kept separate from the rest of the prison population — thereby ensuring his relative safety — and not being tortured or starved, a small sliver of good news. But it also appeared, from their brief glimpses of him during his hearings, that Danny had contracted COVID-19 while in prison.
The United States was in a difficult position: It could not be seen publicly negotiating with a government that had seized power by force. Levin said it became necessary to lean on diplomatic back channels. Those included the ambassadors of other Southeast Asian countries that could act as mediators, such as Japan, Singapore and Thailand. Levin and the Fenster family were also in constant contact with Roger Carstens, the State Department’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs who was appointed by President Donald Trump), as well as Aung Lynn, Myanmar’s ambassador to the United States, who had been appointed by the country’s former head of state Aung San Suu Kyi prior to her ouster by the military.
“He was kind of a sympathetic figure, actually,” Levin said of Lynn. “He didn’t pretend like he had any kind of authority with the coup regime, but he said, you know, ‘I send them my diplomatic cables and they read them.’”
The Jewish advocacy for Fenster reverberated elsewhere in Washington, D.C. Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the D.C.-based executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch, the organization that represents Chabad-Lubavitch’s international interests, met with Lynn on June 9 to discuss Fenster.
Shemtov told JTA he had communicated to the ambassador that “whoever’s in charge is going to find it difficult to find support and sympathy when it seems like this is happening in your country. … The whole world is watching you. He’s an American citizen and a journalist who is merely doing his job.”
Shemtov also brought up to the ambassador Myanmar’s “seriously truncated” Jewish community, which today numbers a small handful of families who maintain a synagogue in Yangon primarily for tourists; he noted that “tourism and everything is going to suffer” if the country continued to detain Fenster. He said he had been in touch with people advocating for Fenster, although not directly with the Fenster family.
The most dispiriting moment of the #BringDannyHome campaign came on Friday, Nov. 12, when Myanmar’s military sentenced Fenster to 11 years of hard labor — while also announcing two new charges against him that each would have carried an additional sentence of up to 20 years. Their primary piece of evidence against him: a false assertion that he had worked for one news outlet, Myanmar Now, during a period when he actually worked for a different outlet, Frontier Myanmar.
Yet the team that had been working behind the scenes for months was not deterred. “Our efforts to get him free were never just based on whatever legal situation he was in, because on a certain level that was always fiction,” Levin said.
Indeed, only three days later, the “Free Fenster” team woke up to the news they had been waiting for all along. Fenster had been freed from prison, was on board a flight out of the country and, following a brief stop in Qatar, was on his way home.
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has become something of an unofficial U.S. hostage negotiator in hostile nations owing to his work freeing American prisoners in North Korea, played a crucial role in freeing Fenster through his nonprofit, The Richardson Center. Richardson flew to Myanmar, where he said in a statement that he had conducted face-to-face negotiations with Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the junta, and escorted Fenster out of the country himself.
Levin said he couldn’t comment on the negotiation process; neither Richardson nor the State Department has answered questions from media regarding what, if anything, the United States promised to Myanmar in exchange for Fenster’s release.
Upon his return to the United States, Fenster spoke at a press conference organized by the Richardson Center and streamed by the Committee to Protect Journalists, where he paid tribute to the efforts organized by his family to bring him home.
“I was able to get little hints of what was going on occasionally, throughout the experience,” he said, noting how, during one of his court sessions, a Myanmar police aide “would flash a picture on his phone of my entire family wearing T-shirts with my face on it on CNN, which was a pretty bizarre thing to see.”
“I just have so much gratitude right now for everything everyone’s done. I think every action everyone’s taken has helped a little bit,” Fenster said, vowing to “continue concentrating on all the other, not just journalists and prisoners of conscience in Myanmar and everywhere else… [but also] a lot of citizens, doctors, teachers, that are in prison right now.”
He added, “This will be a short little celebration, but let’s keep focused on what the actual story is here.”
Fenster’s wife, Juliana Silva, remained in Myanmar after he was released from prison; his family said she planned to join them on the next available commercial flight out of the country.
Levin called Fenster’s return “the happiest moment of my time in Congress.”
“I believe his release is a positive development, and let’s hope others will learn from things like this,” Shemtov said. “The result will be a more general sense of positive encouragement, not only for Myanmar but for other nations as well.”
The “Bring Danny Home” Facebook group, which had by this point grown to more than 6,500 members, lit up with congratulatory posts and welcome-home messages, including a photo of a smiling Danny himself, newly trimmed, wearing the group’s shirt. Its profile image changed to a collage of various media headlines the group’s members had helped to generate about Danny’s detention. Superimposed over them was a new message: “Fenster Is Free!!!”
And in a letter to Temple Emanu-El congregants and on his Facebook page, Rabbi Zerwekh offered up one final prayer for Fenster, one borrowed from Judaism’s traditional morning liturgy that typically carries only symbolic meaning.
“Baruch Atah Adonai, Matir Asurim,” Zerwekh wrote. “Blessed are you God, who frees the captive.”
“A beautiful part of being in community is that we are given the chance to celebrate one another during our joyful times, allows us to show up for one another during the painful times, and to receive love and support when we can use it,” the rabbi wrote. “I am proud of the whole Metro Detroit Jewish community for their voice of support and love for our Fensters and for showing what it means to be a community.”