Hanukkah will see Jews worldwide celebrate a series of “miracles” – from the improbable victory of the undermanned Maccabee army against the Greeks to the oil used to light the "Menorah” in the Jewish Temple lasting a miraculous eight days rather than one day.
But for Danny Fenster – the journalist freed from Myanmar on November 15 after being detained and ultimately sentenced to 11 years in prison for allegedly covering ongoing protests in the Southeast Asian country – there is an additional miracle to be celebrated this Hanukkah – his unthinkable release from jail.
Fenster will be honored in his native Detroit’s Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony, “Menorah in the D,” this Sunday night – the first of eight nights of the Jewish festival of lights.
“We were following the case closely and praying for Danny,” Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov, vice president of Chabad of Michigan, told Chabad.org. “Danny experienced his own Chanukah miracle, and the Detroit community is overjoyed to welcome him home.”
The 37-year-old was among dozens of local journalists detained after a coup by the Myanmar military Junta in February. The editor for the online publication Frontier Myanmar, Fenster was charged with breaching unlawful association and encouraging dissent against the military. He was also set to stand trial on additional charges of sedition and terrorism – charges that carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Fenster was sentenced to eleven years on November 12, nine months after his initial detainment. The organizers originally planned on dedicating a light to Fenster as he sat in prison nearly 10,000 miles away – “but then the miracle happened,” Shemtov said.
Three days after his sentencing – a low point for the Fenster family, who had advocated for his release throughout the process – Myanmar unexpectedly released Fenster on humanitarian grounds. His release was negotiated by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
Richardson, who has built a reputation for his diplomatic work, has advocated for the release of prisoners in North Korea and has visited the secluded nation several times. A former US ambassador to the United Nations, Richardson said he had conducted face-to-face negotiations with Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of Myanmar's “Tatmadaw” military junta, in order to secure Fenster’s release.
ON FEBRUARY 1, Myanmar’s military junta staged a coup against the National League for Democracy (NLD), the ruling party in parliament. Protests followed the coup, and as the military disproportionately used violent force to quell protests – at least 818 people were estimated to have been killed in the first few months of unrest – demonstrators escalated their tactics, with the conflict escalating into what could now be classified as a civil war. Myanmar state media reported that at least 406 junta informants had been killed between February 1 and October 7 in targeted attacks by resistance forces.
Formerly called Burma, Myanmar's military and parliament have had a tumultuous history since the country's independence in 1948 – the same year as Israel's – with the nation alternating between democratic parliamentary rule and military rule, known as stratocracy.
The 2015 election of Au Sang Suu Kyi’s NLD Party, however, was seen as a turning point in Myanmar’s hopes for long-lasting democracy. Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s foremost democratic figure and a former Nobel Peace Prize laureate. She was under house arrest during more than 15 years of her political career, and after seemingly helping Myanmar embrace democracy, she was once again detained by the military regime amid the coup.
Fenster, who denied wrongdoing in all charges brought against him by the junta, released a statement to Chabad.org in which he said he is “completely overwhelmed by the love and support I’ve received from my home community over the last several months.”
“I always understood that something was happening back home – that my name was popping up in so many people’s prayers – but I had no idea of the extent of that support until I came home and saw it with my own eyes," he said. "The mission is to take the light of this community, which got me over to the other side, and to spread it to others still struggling, so they can get over it, too.”