MIAMI BEACH (CBSMiami) — At Friday services at Temple Menorah on Miami Beach, one chair is always reserved for Alan Gross. At the temple, the American contractor jailed in Cuba is considered a victim of politics.
“This is a classic example of a heinous crime perpetuated against a person who was on a civil rights mission,” said Rabbi Eliot Pearlson from Temple Menorah.
Alan Gross, 62, has been imprisoned in the island nation since December 2009 when he was arrested for trying to help members of the island’s small Jewish community with Internet access. He was formally sentenced to 15 years in prison earlier this year for crimes against the state and “disrupting the constitutional order in Cuba.”
At the time he was arrested Gross was working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, a government agency that provides humanitarian assistance but also funds democracy-building programs. The Cuban statement said Gross never told people he contacted in the Communist nation that he was working for a U.S. government program.
Family members in Maryland have been pleading for the Cuban government to release Gross. They say his imprisonment has taken a heavy toll.
“Alan was always a bit of a hefty guy to begin with and always had a smile on his face. Now when you see him, he looks emaciated,” said his wife Judith Gross, who lives in the Washington D.C. area.
There’s been speculation of a possible prisoner swap, in which Gross would be sent home, in return for five Cuban spies serving time in U.S. jails.
Gross’ loved ones have asked that he be released temporarily to visit his elderly mother.
“I can’t be without him any longer,” his mother Evelyn said in a videotaped statement released to the public in hopes of getting public support for his release.
“She’s a real trooper but she’s scared to death she might not see him ever again,” Judith Gross said.
At Temple Menorah, where half the congregation is Cuban-American, there is also concern about Gross’ future.
“Everybody is trying to do their best to get him out of jail because Cuba is one of those places where you don’t know what is happening in jail,” said Marta Olchyk, a Jewish Cuban American member of Temple Menorah’s congregation.
As the leader of the Temple Menorah congregation prays and calls for action, there’s hope the leader of one billion Catholics worldwide can do the same for Alan Gross.
“The fact that they’re welcoming in Cuba is a statement that they appreciate his presence and he’s an important person that does have a voice even with the Cuban government,” Rabbi Pearlson said.
The Obama administration said Wednesday it had asked Pope Benedict XVI to raise with Cuban officials the case of American contractor Alan Gross..
The State Department said the request was made directly to the Vatican and through the papal nuncio in Washington before the Pope arrived in Cuba this week.
“We obviously are hopeful that the pope will continue to be strong on all of the human rights issues in Cuba, religious freedom, and it would be a very, very good thing if the Cuban government were to take this opportunity to release Alan Gross,” spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
“We would be obviously very grateful were the Pope to raise this issue,” she told reporters.
A Vatican spokesman said earlier Wednesday that the pontiff had made “requests of a humanitarian nature” to the Cuban government but did not know if individual cases were discussed.