WASHINGTON (JTA) — Alan Gross has been about communications all his life: The call-mom-everyday son, the family newsbreaker, the message guy for Jewish groups, the get-out-the-vote enthusiast for candidate Barack Obama, the technology contractor who helped the U.S. government bring the world’s remotest populations into the 21st century.
Now, however, Gross, 60, of Potomac, Md., has been languishing for three months in a Cuban high-security prison and his rare conversations are monitored by Cuban officials.
"He spoke with my sister-in-law on a few occasions with someone standing by him," Bonnie Rubinstein, his sister, told JTA in an interview Monday. "He was guarded, he tried to impart that he was OK."
In fact, not so OK, Rubinstein said, correcting herself: Gross’ call last week to his wife, Judy, was to ask for the medication he needs for his gout and that is unavailable in Cuba.
"We’re hoping he got the medication," said Rubinstein, a director of early childhood education at Temple Shalom in Dallas. "He lost 52 pounds. We’re very worried about him."
Gross was arrested Dec. 3 as he prepared to return from Cuba, where he was completing work on behalf of the U.S. government. He has not been charged, but leading Cuban figures — including President Raul Castro — have accused him of being part of a plot to undermine the government.
After weeks of taking a quiet approach to secure Gross’ release, his family and friends launched a public campaign that is spreading to Jewish communities across the United States, attracting the support of U.S. lawmakers and high-profile media outlets. It kicked off last month when Judy Gross issued a video appeal for the release of her husband of 40 years. The Grosses have two adult daughters.
"Alan has done nothing wrong and we want him home," she said in the Feb. 18 video. "We’re hoping that U.S. officials and Cuban officals can get together and mutually agree on a way to get him home."
Up to that point, Judy Gross added, she had only been able to have three brief conversations with her husband.
The video marked the family’s decision to go public after several weeks of hoping to secure his release behind closed doors. Remarks by Cuban leaders suggesting that Gross was a spy were a factor in the change, said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Latin America subcommittee, who has met with the family.
"I’m going to continue to make noise about it, it’s the only thing that can get him released," said Engel, who raised the matter last month with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton when she testified before the Foreign Affairs Committee.
The campaign emphasizes Gross’ Jewish commitment.
"He is helping the Jewish community [in Cuba] improve communications and Internet access," Judy Gross said in the video. Later, after outlining his anti-poverty activism, she added that "Alan also loves the Jewish community. He’s been involved for as long as I can remember."
Gross was active as a young man in the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization and worked several years in the 1980s for the Greater Washington Jewish Federation.
In a statement, the State Department said Gross was working on "a program designed to play a positive constructive role in Cuban society and governance by helping Cuban citizens to gain access they seek to information readily available to citizens elsewhere in the world." Such projects are banned in Cuba.
The State Department did not specify work with the Jewish community, but a backgrounder distributed by Gross’ family, business associates and supporters said he worked only with "with peaceful, non-dissident, Jewish groups" in Cuba. El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish language daily published by the Miami Herald, quoted one Cuban Jewish leader as saying she had not heard of him.
Cuba’s once thriving Jewish community was substantially depleted after Fidel Castro’s 1959 rise to power. Much of the community moved to Miami. Israel struck a deal with Cuba in the late 1990s that allowed the emigration of all but about 1,500 Jews.
"His work was humanitarian and non-political," the backgrounder says. "Alan was helping Cuba’s tiny Jewish community set up an Intranet so that they could communicate amongst themselves and with other Jewish communities abroad, and providing them the ability to access the Internet."
Friends said he was organizing access to Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica and Jewish music sites.
Gross’ plight has galvanized at least two communities: the greater Washington area, where he lives and is active in Am Kollel, a Jewish Renewal community in suburban Maryland; and in Dallas, the home of his sister and mother.
Gross’ mother, Evelyn, 87, is ailing from her concerns for Alan, who called her every day before his arrest, Rubinstein said.
"This is the kind of brother he was, " the sister said, her voice cracking. "If anything was going on with our parents, he would be the one to call. He is fun loving and sociable, everyone loves him. He’s a ‘gut neshama’ " — a good soul.
Last month, Gross’ congressman, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), and both of Maryland’s Democratic senators — Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski — wrote to Clinton expressing their "overwhelming concern" about Gross. Van Hollen also is circulating a similar letter to his colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Ron Halber, who directs Washington’s Jewish Community Relations Council, said his JCRC is asking its counterparts nationwide to urge lawmakers to sign the letter.
"This man’s career has been marked by humanitarian efforts," Halber said.
The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal have weighed in with editorials.
"Only in the ancient, crumbling regime of the Castro brothers could this ridiculous charge be leveled," the Post said Feb. 22, referring to the insinuations of espionage. "That’s because Cuba is virtually alone, even among authoritarian countries, in trying to prevent most of its population from using the Internet even for nonpolitical purposes."
Rubinstein said Gross had been to Cuba several times prior to the most recent visit, and that for the first time in his career he seemed apprehensive.
"He was concerned that whomever he spoke to in Cuba, he couldn’t trust anyone there," she said. "He had never felt nervous, not even in Iran or Iraq."
A statement by Gross’ company, Joint Business Development Center, on a Web site promoting voluntarism, said that it "has supported Internet connectivity in locations where there was little or no access. In the past two years JBDC has installed more than 60 satellite terminals, bringing Internet access, email, VoIP, fax and the like to remote locations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Armenia, and Kuwait."
JBDC was subcontracting from Development Alternatives Inc., which itself had won a bid for the Cuba contract from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
According to a Washington Jewish Week story in January, DAI in the past has been linked to groups opposing the Chavez regime in Venezuela — an ally of the Castro regime. The newspaper also quoted Cuba experts as wondering why such assistance was needed, saying that World ORT already provides computer needs to Cuba’s Jews. Such an officially sanctioned program, however, would likely not have promoted free Internet access, as Gross was doing.
In a Dec. 14 statement on the matter, DAI said it was working with the State Department to "ensure that the detainee’s safety and well-being is given top priority."
DAI updated its statement on Monday in an e-mail to JTA.
“We are obviously very concerned about Alan’s well-being and continue to do everything we can to secure his release," said the company’s spokesman, Steven O’Connor. "In that regard, we are grateful for the efforts of the State Department and remain hopeful that Alan can be reunited with his family soon.”
The last visit American diplomats were allowed with Gross was on Feb. 2. The phone number for the Cuban Interests Section in Washington was perpetually busy on Monday.
In her video, Judy Gross said her husband had visisted more than 50 countries, helping not only to promote Internet access but to build schools and promote employment. The backgrounder emphasizes his work with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"His work has had a positive impact in the lives of people in over 50 countries, including the West Bank, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, and Haiti," it says.
Friends and Cuba watchers say Gross is a victim of Cuban resentment of U.S. human rights outreach in the island nation. The autocracy had hoped that efforts launched under President George W. Bush would subside, but President Obama — for whom Gross campaigned in 2008 — has maintained the programs.
"The Castro regime is trying to put pressure on the United States," Engel said. "If Raul Castro wants to normalize relations with the United States, this is a heckuva way to do it."