On January 23, the Wexner Heritage Washington DC 13 class had the wonderful opportunity to join more than 450 members of the DC community in welcoming home Alan Gross, who was imprisoned for five years in Cuba.  Gross, an international development contractor, was convicted for crimes against the Cuban state while delivering computer equipment to Cuba’s small Jewish community.  He was released on December 17, 2014 as part of a broader shift in the United States’ policy towards Cuba. 

The event was held at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland and hosted by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC).  During Alan’s imprisonment, the JCRC led a national campaign with petitions, weekly rallies and repeated contacts with members of Congress and the Obama Administration.  Following the duty of Pidyon Shvuyim (redemption of captives), the Jewish community worked to ensure that Alan’s release remained a priority as the Obama Administration reconsidered American policies towards Cuba.  As Alan stated at the press conference upon his release from Cuba, the Jewish community’s efforts were a source of hope for him and his wife Judy throughout this ordeal.

At the homecoming event, speakers included JCRC President Cookie Blitz, JCRC Executive Director Ron Halber, and Temple Beth Ami Rabbi Jack Luxemburg.   Congressman Chris Van Hollen, whose district includes Montgomery County and who had been actively involved in efforts for Alan’s release from the time of his 2009 arrest, described how meaningful it was for him to see Alan sitting with First Lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union Address two days earlier. 

The highlight of the event was, undoubtedly, Alan’s remarks in which he spoke about his five-year imprisonment as a “living hell” and his return home as a “living heaven.”  With humor and compassion, Alan talked about how he kept himself occupied and his love for the Cuban people.  He expressed gratitude to his wife Judy and the broader Jewish community for their efforts on his behalf.

The event concluded with a champagne toast offered by B’nai Brith International Senior Vice President Bruce Pascal.  Holding aloft a bracelet of bottle caps, which was wound together in a style reminiscent of a Havdalah candle that Alan made during his captivity, Bruce spoke about his four visits to Cuba to meet with Alan. 

“It was a pleasure to see Alan and his family reunited and celebrating his freedom,” said Joanne Moore, a member of the Washington DC 13 cohort. “As a Wexner class, this was a special moment to witness and share.”

Although the homecoming event conflicted with our usual Thursday session, the members of the Washington DC 13 class thank Wexner staff Rabbi Jay Moses and Jaclyn Hirsch, as well as our teacher, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, for their tremendous flexibility in allowing us to relocate our meeting so we could participate in this truly special evening.

Michael Friedman, a native of Potomac, Maryland and a current member in the Wexner Heritage Cohort (Washington DC 13), is a Research Assistant Professor in Kinesiology at the University of Maryland, where he teaches the History of Sport in the United States and focuses his research on baseball stadiums and public policy.  He also serves as Vice President of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.  He and his spouse Sara are the parents of two wonderful children, Benjamin and Daphne.  Michael can be reached at ftbleacher@aol.com