When Richard Benkin enters his synagogue
Monday to observe the holiest and most solemn day on the
Jewish calendar, he will plead for God's mercy on behalf of a
friend he has never met.
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury,
a Bangladeshi Muslim journalist who invited Benkin to write
about Israel from a Jewish point of view, will be tried this
month on charges of spying for the Jewish state. The crime is
punishable by death in predominantly Muslim
On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement that
concludes the Jewish High Holy Days, faithful Jews fast from
food and drink, fill synagogues to seek God's forgiveness and
turn their thoughts inward to contemplate how they can improve
Benkin already knows what he must do. He
believes Choudhury is innocent and is committed to clearing
his colleague's name.
"He was in prison just for
standing up for what was right," said Benkin, 54, a member of
Temple Chai in Long Grove and a prolific activist for
"I've often said that fighting
for Shoaib, standing up for him, is exactly what we mean when
we say, `Never again,'" Benkin said, referring to a Jewish
condemnation of the Holocaust. "`Never again' is preventing
this from happening to anybody and being courageous to stand
up against it."
For more than three years, Benkin's
friendship with Choudhury has become a brotherly bond. It
started when Choudhury, the editor of an English-language
weekly newspaper in Bangladesh, e-mailed Benkin to help him
foster a conversation in his country about Israel.
the Muslim world there is a tremendous misconception spread by
the terrorists and the religious in the mosques," Choudhury
said in a telephone interview. "They are told that Christians
and Jews are the enemies of Islam. Whenever they are referring
to that issue, they are also waving their fingers to Israel as
an extremist country persecuting the Muslims."With Choudhury's
support, Benkin wrote the first pro-Zionist articles published
in Bangladesh. Choudhury in turn condemned Muslim extremism in
the Israeli media.
"It was very clear to both of us
that there was something genuine here," Benkin said. "This was
an incredible opportunity to participate in something special.
The fact that this man was going to stand up and do something
like that, in what turned out to be a very dangerous
environment, only made me admire and love him even
The exchange abruptly ended in November 2003.
Choudhury was arrested at Dhaka-Zia International Airport
before boarding a flight to Israel, where he was scheduled to
deliver a lecture on Muslim-Jewish relations. After several
months behind bars, he was charged with sedition, a capital
offense in Bangladesh.
"This is absolutely a false
allegation," Choudhury said. "I never, ever spy for any
country. We work for the betterment of the
Benkin immediately began pushing for
Choudhury's release, writing letters to politicians,
publishing articles and praying daily that his colleague would
"I took quite seriously Shoaib's call to me,"
Benkin said. "When you get a cry for help, you give one
answer: `What can I do?'"
In January 2005, Benkin's
prayers and letters were answered. U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk
(R-Ill.) volunteered to help.
"[Choudhury] is a
passionate public advocate for dialogue with Israel," Kirk
said in an interview last week. "With near biblical certainty,
I feel he has no official contact with the Israeli
Kirk arranged a meeting with Bangladeshi
Ambassador Shamsher M. Chowdhury, who agreed to help secure
the jailed journalist's release on bail and try to get the
After 17 months in jail, Choudhury was
released. But a judge ruled that his case would proceed to
"Courts are very independent in Bangladesh," the
ambassador said in a telephone interview. "But the government
is not pursuing the case very strongly."
devastated but refused to surrender. In the days leading up to
the High Holy Days, he focused on how he could save his
"I entered the temple quite literally with a
heavy heart," he said of the first night of services. "One
thing that I took away was that Shoaib and I should embrace
the struggle. If we struggle against it and we succeed, we're
going to embolden other people to do the same."
weekend, Benkin prepared for the Day of Atonement with the
ritual of Taschlich, a ceremony of casting bread into water,
as if casting away sins for a fresh start to the new
Benkin imbued each piece of bread with a prayer
for a loved one. He thought of Choudhury as he tossed a crumb
into the creek below.
"I feel that God has given me a
tremendous responsibility," he said. "I was asking God for the
strength and judgment to be equal to the task. A man's life
could be hanging in the balance."
Choudhury said he can
feel those prayers. He trusts that Benkin will not let him
"He is not only my brother, he is my teacher, my
great philosopher," Choudhury said.
Even when family
members looked the other way, Choudhury said, "Dr. Richard
Benkin ... he never, ever abandoned