To Debbie Amster of Olney, Md. watching Alan Gross step off a plane onto American soil on Dec. 17 “really felt like a miracle. It brought tears to my eyes.”
She and her husband, Michael, have been close friends with Gross and his wife, Judy, since the mid-1970s. They remained in communication during Gross’s five-year incarceration in Cuba, which ended Dec. 17 as part of a deal normalizing relations between Washington and the communist country.
When he was arrested, Gross, who was working in Cuba as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, denied that he was doing anything but setting up Internet access for the Cuban Jewish community.
Gross and Amster met in 1976 when they were both Jewish communal workers — he at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, DC, and she at the community’s Jewish Council for the Aging.
“He is a spiritual person who belonged to a Reform synagogue and a havura, but Shabbat was always a big part of his life,” Amster said. “Shabbat dinner was basically when we got together with his family and a bunch of empty-nesters.”
Then came his arrest on Dec. 3, 2009, after being accused of “crimes against the Cuban state” and his five years behind bars at Villa Marista Prison.
“It was scary and shocking” to learn he had been arrested, said Amster. “He was in a place that is not friendly for Americans.” Gross was accused of bringing satellite phones and computer equipment to members of Cuba’s Jewish community without permission from the Cuban government.
During his time in prison, Amster told NJ Jewish News in a Dec. 19 phone interview, Gross was able to make occasional phone calls to her. (Amster’s sister, Charna West of Scotch Plains, is a senior account executive at NJJN.)
After Gross was first arrested, Amster said, “most of my contact was with Judy. It was much later that he was able to make phone calls.”
“We would speak once every few weeks, and the reality is, it was amazing that he was able to keep his spirits up the way he did. One of the last times we spoke I said to him, ‘Alan, you still have your sense of humor,’ and he said, ‘That is all I have. I have to have that.’”
Gross and his wife were reunited on Dec. 17 and returned to the Washington area. Judy Gross said he lost 100 pounds and several teeth during his ordeal, and suffered chronic arthritis pain.
Amster, who works as a nutritional consultant, told NJJN that she has not spoken with Gross since his release two days earlier, but “I hope to get together with him some time next week.”
Asked whether she thought he might have done something to undermine the Cuban government, Amster said, “Absolutely not. He was a hostage. Cuba wanted its spies back, and he was a pawn.”
She called the restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba “a great thing. Like President Obama said, the definition of insanity is to do the same thing for 50 years and expect different results.”
Despite the pain of separation and some awareness of his suffering, Amster said, “It doesn’t feel like there has been an absence of Alan in our lives.”
She anticipates that their reunion will be “wonderful. It will be tearful. But he has been in our thoughts every day, and we have had the good luck to be able to be in touch.”