Cuban Jewish leaders meet with jailed American

December 28, 2011 - 4:11 PM

HAVANA (AP) — An American government contractor jailed in Cuba is in good spirits and fine health, but anxious to get home to his family and disappointed he was not included in a massive prisoner amnesty announced by President Raul Castro last week, a Jewish leader who saw him said Wednesday.

Adela Dworin told The Associated Press she and another Jewish leader spent nearly two hours Monday with Alan Gross at the military hospital where he is being held.

The three celebrated the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah by lighting candles, eating potato pancakes and passing around chocolate coins.

"His health is very good," Dworin said. "He has gained some weight. He's not fat, but he's not so thin anymore."

Gross reportedly had lost 100 pounds (45 kilos) since he was arrested in December 2009.

He was working on a USAID-funded democracy-building program when he was arrested. His supporters say he was only trying to help the island's small Jewish community improve its Internet connection. Cuba says the USAID programs are aimed at bringing about regime change on the island.

Gross was sentenced to 15 years in jail earlier this year. His family and other prominent Americans have pleaded with Castro to release the 62-year-old Maryland native on humanitarian grounds, noting that both his mother and daughter have been diagnosed with cancer since his incarceration, and that Gross himself has diabetes and other ailments.

Castro has voiced concern about Gross' condition, but the American was not included on a list of 2,900 prisoners the Cuban leader pardoned last week, most of them in jail for common crimes.

Gross' wife, Judy, said Saturday that her family was deeply distressed to hear that Gross was not included in the pardon, and that her husband was "increasingly mentally weak and depressed" by his continued incarceration.

"To receive news in the middle of Hanukkah that the Cuban authorities have once again overlooked an opportunity to release Alan on humanitarian grounds is devastating. Our family is simply heartbroken," she said in a statement, adding that Gross "is losing all hope that he will ever see his mother again."

Dworin said Gross expressed his continued love for the Cuban people, saying that he hoped once he is free to be allowed to come back to Cuba to visit. She said he was extremely anxious to get back home to his wife and family, but said he put on a brave face during the visit.

She said they did not discuss Castro's prisoner amnesty at length during the Hanukkah celebration, but that Gross knew about it and was clearly disappointed not to be part of it.

"He wants to have hope," Dworin said. "We Jews always live with hope, or we would have disappeared from the earth long ago. A miracle could occur. After all it is Hanukkah, which is all about a miracle."

Hanukkah, which concluded Tuesday, is the Festival of Lights for Jews. The holiday commemorates the rededication of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 164 B.C. According to tradition, a candelabra was lit with only enough oil for one day, but it miraculously burned for eight days.

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Paul Haven can be reached at www.twitter.com/paulhaven/