"Hag sameach." Those were the first words of the newly freed Alan Gross at his Washington press conference Wednesday afternoon.
After five years in a Cuban prison for trying to smuggle Internet equipment to the communist country's tiny Jewish community, he was freed as part of a dramatic change in relations between Havana and Washington..
Gross gave special thanks to the Greater Washington Jewish Community Relations Council and its executive director, Ron Halber, for their ongoing campaign for his freedom.
Gross also paid tribute to his lawyer, Scott Gilbert, who he called "my personal Moses."
"I guess so far it's the best Chanukah that I'll be celebrating for a long time," the 65-year-old said. "What a blessing it is to be a citizen of this country, and thank you, President Obama, for everything you have done today and leading up to today."
I had a chance to visit the Cuban Jewish community a couple of years ago. Community groups wanted some rudimentary computer equipment so they could be in touch with each other and with the rest of the world. Gross was in prison by the time I was there but community figures we met said there had been no fallout from his arrest. Gross, a contract worker for the U.S. Agency for International Development, had been smuggling in pieces during several trips until finally apprehended.
An official of a major Jewish organization who has led several Jewish missions to Cuba told me he knew Gross well from when Gross accompanied the groups on their flights, but not on their ground programs. Gross, my source said, would ask various participants to put a small package in their luggage and return it to him after they'd cleared customs in Havana.
Gross wasn't a spy. He had broken minor import regulations, but that’s not why he got a 15-year sentence. He was a convenient hostage in Cuban efforts to win the release of some real spies in American prisons. That was the deal struck in negotiations over the past year and a half and announced Wednesday by President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro.
Members of the Jewish community I met throughout Cuba told me that while their government pursues a stridently anti-Israel foreign policy, the country has no history of anti-Semitism officially or otherwise.
Congregants at Havana's Patranato synagogue told me Fidel Castro had visited and expressed warm feelings toward the Jewish community, telling them he may be descended from conversos who left Spain in the 15th century. While it has been difficult for most Cubans to leave their country, Fidel did not interfere with Jews who want to make aliyah, because he considered that returning to their homeland, not fleeing their country.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), was one of many members of Congress who campaigned for Gross' freedom, was at Joint Base Andrews to welcome his constituent from Rockville, MD, a Washington suburb. It was appropriate that Gross's freedom come on the first day of Chanukah, Cardin, who is also Jewish, noted, because it is a holiday "which celebrates great miracles."
At a White House Chanukah party later in the day for what the President called "a few friends" — about 550 people– Obama said it was especially appropriate for a prisoner to be set free on Chanukah. "After being unjustly held..Alan Gross is free," he said. “We never gave up.”
The official jet sent to pick up Gross brought his wife and a special treat: a corned beef sandwich and latkes to eat on the ride home.