It’s Monday at noon and, like clockwork, John Wassel and a group of people gather outside the Cuban Interests Section on 16th Street in the District to hold a vigil for Alan Gross, a local Jewish contractor who has been imprisoned in Cuba since 2009.
Wassel, who is the director of security for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, has been attending these weekly vigils, organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, since they began in November 2012.
“I started coming down here as security and have continued to come because when it comes down to it, if I was illegally detained somewhere I would want to have the support of my community,” he said. “Alan feels like he’s been forgotten, and I want him to know that we’re here and we’re going to continue to remind the community that he’s still imprisoned.”
Complete with a megaphone and signs that read “Free Alan Gross Now!,” Wassel is accompanied each week by a group of people who, like him, have been attending these vigils for a year and a half.
“We’re like a thorn in their [the Cubans] side, and we hope it’ll make a difference. We have this good core group of people that come out each week and if it helps Alan and his spirits and his family, then we’ll be here until his release,” he said.
That group includes Gary Isen, Rabbi Arnold Saltzman, Mona Berch, Carlos Lumpuy and Les Ulanow.
“Someone has to stand and remind the Cuban government and the people here that this is an issue,” said Ulanow. “Alan is near and dear in our hearts and in our community and that’s why we’re here every week.”
This past Monday, the group was joined by Gross’ sister, Bonnie Rubinstein, who was in town from Dallas to attend last week’s 75th anniversary gala for the JCRC, where her brother received the Distinguished Service Award in absentia.
Rubinstein described her brother’s imprisonment as “horrible and heart wrenching” adding that she is thankful to those that come out each week to hold vigil for Gross.
Also in attendance on Monday was Gross’ cousin Glenda Chernoff, who stressed the importance of the vigils as they are integral in supporting Gross’ morale.
“It’s comforting to know that people are interested and do care about Alan and to be able to tell him that there are people here fighting for his release really helps his spirit,” she said.
While the regulars are joined by a couple of people here and there each week, Wassel explained that they are in need of more people to come out and support Gross.
“It would be really nice if we could get more people. The Jewish community needs to support this, it’s their obligation to get this man home,” he said.
“His family deserves the support of the government and of all the synagogues, congregants and organizations,” added Rabbi Saltzman. “When will they show up?”
Ron Halber, JCRC executive director, explained that the goal of the vigils is to keep them going each week to show both the Cubans and Gross that they haven’t stopped fighting for his release.
“We knew that over a long period of time, we would not be able to sustain having 100 people at every vigil, that was never our intent, our intent is longevity,” he said. “Since Alan is being held for a long period of time our goal is to show the Cubans that we wouldn’t forget him by having a permanent reminder and offer support to Alan and his family to show that the Jewish community wouldn’t forget him. We’ve been doing this for almost two years now and we’ll continue until he is released and returned home.”