WASHINGTON (RNS)--As he has done every year for more than half a century,Herb Rosenbaum will celebrate the Jewish observance of Passover on April19, breaking matzo and reciting prayers to commemorate the Israelites'escape from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago.

But between the end of the Seder meal and the telling of the secondhalf of the Exodus story, Rosenbaum plans to introduce a new element tothe observance: writing letters to political prisoners abroad.

"The whole notion of the Seder celebration is about the attainmentof freedom from slavery and oppression," said Rosenbaum, a retiredpolitical science professor from Long Island, who is participating forthe second year in Amnesty International USA's Passover Action for HumanRights project, in which people in the United States send letters toprisoners abroad.

"Writing the letters has the virtue of making concrete in our owntime what some people might regard as something that only happened longago in history," he said. "It's kind of a direct application of the veryidea of the Seder."That's what the project's founder, Lyn Dobrin, said she hoped toaccomplish."I wanted to go beyond writing to government officials and think ofcreative ways to offer support to prisoners of conscience and to remindpeople that people are still suffering today," said Dobrin, co-leader ofthe Amnesty International chapter to which Rosenbaum belongs. She saidshe was inspired by the organization's Holiday Card Action Project, inwhich U.
S. families send support letters to prisoners abroad during theKwanzaa and Christmas season. "I thought why not take that holiday cardcampaign and apply it to Passover? The story is about oppressed people.It seemed like an absolutely perfect connection."Amnesty USA launched a pilot Passover Action project on Long Islandlast year before initiating the nationwide effort this Passover season."The tie-in between Passover and what Passover commemorates and thework of Amnesty International we think is an obvious one," said MichaelO'Reilly, national casework director for AI USA and who helps choosewhich human rights abuses Passover Action will focus on."During Passover people are remembering the hardships and slaverysuffered by Jews thousands of years ago. Human rights violations existed3,000 ago, and unfortunately they still exist in the same manner theyexisted then. Torture still occurs; slavery still occurs," he said."Amnesty International works with the modern-day analogies to thehardships and slavery of the Jews."Such as the case of Makhbuba Kasymova, one of three cases thePassover project will focus upon this year. A member of the democraticopposition movement in Uzbekistan, Kasymova was given a five-yearsentence for "concealing or failing to report a crime," according to AI,charges the group believes are false.

Or Ngawang Choezon, whom the project will also focus upon. A Tibetannun imprisoned since 1992 in connection with a peaceful pro-Tibetanindependence demonstration, Ngawang Choezon was initially given afive-year sentence but that was later stretched to 11 years afterChinese authorities learned she continued pro-democracy activities inprison, according to AI.

The Passover project will also highlight the plight of childrensoldiers in Uganda, who are frequently kidnapped and forced to work asslaves--sometimes as sexual slaves--for autonomy-seeking rebelforces in southern Uganda.

"We're looking for cases where there is the potential that theprisoner will actually receive the cards," said O'Reilly, "and we choosecases where we think a large outpouring of letters is likely to bebeneficial. Prisoners have told us that they could tell when cards andletters came into prison; they were given better food, better treatment.

Even if the cards don't always reach the prisoner they reach prisonauthorities, and the authorities become aware that there are peoplearound the world who are concerned about the prisoners inside thewalls."

At least 600 families around the country are expected toparticipate in the project this year, said Vienna Colucci, director ofmembership networks for Amnesty International USA.

"This is something that's really catching on," said Colucci. "Iwould hope we could expand this internationally at some point."

The cards are simple, offering short, supportive messages: "We'rethinking of you. We wish you well. We wish you freedom. You have afriend."

"We don't include any religious messages because the prisoners comefrom different faith backgrounds," said Colucci. "And we don't mentionany political situation because you don't want to antagonize theauthorities. We just want something to let the prisoners know people inthe world are thinking about them; they're not forgotten.


Whether the cards actually reach the intended recipient is notalways certain, said Dobrin.

"When you do this work you're really working in the dark because youjust don't know where your letters are going," she said. "You hope theletters are going to the people they're supposed to even though youdon't hear back. But we have the hope, and that's why you do the work."