For the first year of Alan Gross’ imprisonment in Cuba, he lived in isolation, a light shining in his cell 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He often was interrogated, but the District man who was sentenced to 15 years for crimes against Cuba kept himself occupied by exercising in his cell, creating word puzzles and writing songs.
That, and more, is according to attendees at a recent welcome-home reception for Gross at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville that was sponsored by dozens of Jewish organizations.
“He clearly had the fortitude and positive attitude to get through what many of us could not,” said David Waghelstein, a long-time friend of Gross who is president and CEO of MemberCar in Rockville. “He’s doing great, and he’s going to continue to do great.”
Rather than lament what he didn’t have, Gross wrote a wry song titled “Nada,” and often sang it to himself. In Spanish, the song detailed what he missed. There was no hot water in the shower, no daylight, no paper, no pencil.
Gross’ life improved over the years, and he was able to read two books a week. He was placed in a cell with two other men, one of whom only spoke Spanish. Gross spent time solving crossword puzzles and even help create puzzles in Spanish for his cellmate.
Gross also occupied himself by making jewelry. He took the blue plastic that seals some bottles and wove them into designs. S. Bruce Pascal, senior vice president of leasing at Vornado/Charles E. Smith, who delivered a champagne toast at the Temple Beth Ami event, held up one that looked like a Havdalah candle. Pascal and Gross had grown close while involved in B’nai B’rith International.
About 100 people attended the Jan. 23 dinner for Gross, who wore a trim-fit gray suit, red tie and a perpetual smile. The dinner, catered by Michael Medina, president and CEO of The Kosher Kitchen Catering Co. in Potomac, featured a three-course meal starting with bruschetta of chopped tomatoes and fresh basil, and butternut squash soup followed by petit filet of salmon. The entrée was beef Wellington topped with a cremini mushroom sauce.
After dinner, a desert and champagne reception was attended by about 450 people who nibbled on chocolate dipped strawberries, chocolate mousse in a shot glass, chocolate truffles, cookies, brownie lollipops, cheesecake bites and many other pastries.
Gross briefly addressed his well-wishers, stating that while he celebrated being “home sweet home” with “my kehilla, my community, my tribe,” he revealed that his previous five years spent imprisoned in Cuba were the very opposite – “home sweet hell.”
Sidney Katz, a former mayor of Gaithersburg who now is Montgomery County councilman representing District 3, said there was “a wonderful feeling in the room” with a varied group of people all celebrating the same simcha.
Leaders of the Jewish community, particularly those from the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Federation of Great Washington, mingled with synagogue rabbis and executive directors, as well as with former members of Gross’ AZA youth group chapter, B’nai B’rith International officials, and politicians from Montgomery County, Annapolis and the federal government — and many who didn’t know Gross personally but followed his story these past five years and wanted to join in the celebration.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said it was special for him to look up at the State of the Union address and see sitting next to the first lady, Alan and his wife, Judy Gross. “What a journey, from five years in prison to the State of Union address with the first lady.”
He then thanked Judy Gross, calling her “relentless. She was fighting every day, telling the White House the clock is ticking here.”
He went on to praise Alan Gross as an exemplary model of “resilience and keeping the faith.”
Van Hollen told the crowd that Gross got a call from President Barack Obama while on the plane home. The congressman asked how the call went, and Gross said, “‘It was a great conversation, only the call interrupted my first corned beef sandwich in five years.’”
In another display of humor, Gross told the dinner crowd that he called JCRC Executive Director Ron Halber from prison only to be placed on hold. When Halber took the call, he apologized — to which Gross said he replied that he was glad, because he was able to listen to the phone-hold music of “Dodi Li,” adding he hadn’t heard Jewish music in a long time.
Maryland State Delegate Kirill Reznik (D-39) remarked on Gross’ “incredible sense of humor,” adding the former prisoner was “clearly grateful for his freedom.”
Rabbi Jack Luxemburg, Beth Ami’s senior rabbi, joked to the crowd that “it looks like Rosh Hashanah in here.” He later turned serious to say that “in a way it is like Rosh Hashanah, turning a page in the Book of Life for our community and Judy. Let us not forget the invisible hands who contributed to bringing Alan home.”
A few of the attendees were impressed with Gross’ apparent lack of animosity, and that he still held a fondness for the people of Cuba and its beautiful country. He did, however, note that he stopped taking the medicine he was receiving for fear that it might harm him. He also told the crowd he had lost more than 100 pounds during his ordeal.
Gross individually thanked many people who worked for his release and saved a special thank you to his family, who he never realized how much strength they had.
“Alan Gross is an inspiration and affirmed my belief that we had done something important,” said Rabbi Arnold Saltzman, one of the leaders of the community’s four years of Monday vigils calling for Gross’ freedom that were held in front of the Cuban Interests Section in the District.
“As a community, we kept up pressure for his case,” he said.
He said Gross kept his spirits up when he realized he was not forgotten. He knew about the vigils and appreciated the cards and letters he received, Saltzman said. “The event was a reminder that the community can be strong together,” the rabbi said. “We rescued a captive and saved a life.”
Gross is moving on with his life. On his Facebook page, he mentioned visiting his first Starbucks since November 2009, and, after 50 years, receiving a new driver’s learner’s permit.
When asked during the community celebration what he planned to do next, Gross’ wife responded that it was vacation time for them.
Editor-in-Chief Geoffrey W. Melada contributed to this report.