Last Tuesday, just 90 minutes after the fifth-grade class at the Schechter School of Long Island recited its customary morning prayer for the release of Alan Gross from a Cuban prison, principal Marcey Wagner announced his release on the school’s public address system.
“A year ago the present to Alan was our letters,” she said. “Today, the present to us was his freedom.”
Gasps and cheers filled the elementary school in Jericho, L.I.
“The first thing out of the children’s mouths was, ‘When is he going to come here?’” Wagner recalled.
The children’s unwavering bond with Gross began two and a half years ago when the fifth-grade class began reciting both a prayer for his release and the number of days he had been held on charges of espionage for attempting to connect the 1,500-member Cuban Jewish community with the Internet.
They started the count after the October 2011 release of another prisoner they had prayed for — Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier abducted in 2006 by Palestinian terrorists in a cross-border raid — and they never missed a day.
Gross’ release, which came at the end of 18 months of secret talks facilitated by Pope Francis and Canadian officials, occurred just hours before President Barak Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced simultaneously that their two countries were resuming diplomatic relations after more than 50 years.
But some lawmakers — particularly Republicans — immediately denounced the move, saying they would vote against lifting the economic blockade of Cuba. They argued it is wrong to restore diplomatic relations without exacting any promises from Castro to change what former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush called a “repressive regime.” And Sen. Lindsey Graham said that as a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations he would seek to block any funding for the construction of an American embassy in Cuba and refuse to confirm any ambassador appointed by Obama.
Nevertheless, Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic relations is likely to have an impact on Israel, which was the only country in the United Nations to vote along with the U.S. in support of America’s economic embargo of Cuba.
One Israeli official told the Times of Israel that the Israeli Foreign Ministry is at “the beginning of a long process” of reassessing Israel’s relationship with Cuba, which severed relations in 1973.
Fidel Castro, whom Raul succeeded as president, has been critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, comparing it to Nazi genocide. On the other hand, he is pointedly not anti-Semitic and attended a Chanukah celebration in 1998; Raul attended in 2010.
Obama’s move to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba may also pave the way to the resumption of U.S. relations with three other Latin American countries — Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua — according to Dina Siegel Vann, director of the Arthur and Rochelle Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs at the American Jewish Committee.
She said plunging oil prices are making this reassessment particularly fortuitous because Venezuela’s economy is built on oil and it must import virtually all of it staples, like food, sugar and even toilet paper.
“Venezuela has been providing oil to Cuba for free and Cuba understands that with the Venezuelan economy about to implode, it has to look for other alternatives,” Vann said. “So there is not only diplomatic reasoning behind Cuba’s moves, it is important for economic reasons as well.”
The economies of both Bolivia and Nicaragua are growing, Vann said. However, she noted, much of the Bolivian economy is based on its sale of gas and other minerals to China, and the economic slowdown there is having ramifications in Bolivia even though it has a diversified economy.
But it takes two to tango, and Vann noted that all four Latin American countries were responsible for severing relations with Israel. And she said anti-Israel rhetoric has been particularly prevalent in Venezuela, where it is “part of the official media.”
But diplomacy was never an issue for the Schechter students, whose only focus was on securing the release of Gross and the other two captives whom they have prayed for (in addition to Shalit, they also prayed for private first class Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. Army soldier who disappeared in Afghanistan in 2009 and was captured by the Taliban until he was released in May in exchange for five Taliban officials imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba).
“The children always fought over who was going to do the count,” said their teacher, Lizet Romano. “They wanted their voices heard. They learned that saving one person is comparable to saving the entire world.”
Their belief that Gross might one day visit their school stemmed from a letter he sent Wagner last December in which he thanked the fifth-graders for the letters they sent him in prison. Adele Dworin, president of the Hebrew Community of Cuba, had brought the letters to him during one of the infrequent visits she was permitted.
“I was deeply moved by the warmth of their messages,” Gross wrote. “Please share with them how much I appreciate their prayers and good wishes. Assure them that these are truly felt and that they are a meaningful source of hope for my family and me. … This was the first Chanukah present that I received since I was detained. … The students did a real mitzvah.”
He added that he looked forward to one day being freed and being able to “join with Schechter school to celebrate that occasion.” And while on Long Island, he said he would like to visit the house in New Hyde Park where he spent his first 10 years.
Wagner said she sent an email to one of Gross’ lawyers with whom she had been in touch, Richard Shore, to tell him how excited the school was about Gross’ release.
“Your students should be very proud of themselves,” Shore replied, “and they have every reason to share in the joy of Alan’s release and return to freedom in this wonderful country, and the mitzvah of taking action to help bring this about.”
By the end of the week, all of the students in the k-5 school had written Welcome Home letters to Gross, most written in both Hebrew and English. And the sixth graders, whose letters Gross had received last year, were promised they could join the celebration should Gross actually visit the school.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said last week that his organization was waiting to hear from Gross before making plans for a welcome by the New York Jewish community.
Hoenlein said Gross had been released by Cuba for “humanitarian” reasons. He stressed that his release was not part of the prisoner swap that occurred at the same time. That involved the U.S. release of three Cuban nationals convicted by the U.S. of spying in 2001 in connection with the shooting down of two small planes by the Cuban military. In return, Cuba freed an American intelligence agent who had been imprisoned for 20 years.
But Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, spiritual leader of The Jewish Center of the Hamptons in East Hampton, L.I., who was visiting Cuba with 19 congregants when Gross was freed, said the Cuban government and media “lumped Gross together” with the release of the intelligent agent.
“They were both called spies,” Rabbi Zimmerman said. “They haven’t changed their mind about him.”
He said he and his congregants learned of Gross’ release when they walked into the offices of the American Interests Section for a briefing.
The group had arrived in Cuba the previous week and had visited two small communities in which a number of Jews lived.
“In one town there were four Jewish families and one was a grandmother who had converted to Judaism and raised a Jewish family,” he said, adding that the two daughters were the only Jews in their schools.
“We also met a man who had rebuilt a synagogue for 10 or 15 families that were there,” Rabbi Zimmerman recalled.
He said they also met with Dworin, the Jewish community’s president, who told them that although her friends decided to leave, she stayed “to guard the Judaism that is here. She said she feels very positive that this is a new beginning”
“What is amazing is that they have kept the light,” the rabbi said. “We lit [Shabbat] candles in Havana with the youth group of a congregation. They are totally Cuban and [conducted] a traditional service.”
And they joined Cuban Jews in lighting Chanukah candles.
“These are people who are living in a community where they are a minority and who struggle to keep the flame alive,” Rabbi Zimmerman observed. “For me, this has changed my view — I now have a different view of what one candle can mean.”