Two leaders of Cuba's tiny Jewish community have visited an imprisoned U.S. government contractor, celebrating the Jewish New Year with him in a small private room near his cell.
The Jewish leaders, Adela Dworin and David Prinstein, said in an email sent to journalists Friday that they spent two hours with Maryland-native Alan Gross on Wednesday and found him to be in good spirits and health.
As host, Gross led the three in a traditional toast "to life," and the three shared sweets and coffee. Dworin and Prinstein said it was the second time they had met with Gross in jail.
Gross, 62, was arrested in December 2009 and later sentenced to 15 years in jail for crimes against the Cuban state after he was caught bringing communications equipment onto the island illegally while working on a USAID-funded democracy program.
Cuban officials say such programs are a thinly veiled U.S. attempt to bring down the island's Communist government.
Gross has said he was only trying to help some members of Cuba's 1,500-member Jewish community gain better Internet access, and his jailing has torpedoed efforts for improved ties between Cuba and the United States.
The latest manifestation of the rift came on a trip several weeks ago by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said he was invited to the island by Cuban officials to negotiate Gross' release, but when he arrived was told he would not even be allowed to meet with Gross in jail.
Richardson declared Gross to be a "American hostage" and briefly vowed to remain in Cuba until he was granted access to him. He ultimately left without seeing Gross, saying he doubted he would ever be able to come back as a friend. Cuban officials, in turn, blasted Richardson, accusing him of trying to blackmail and strong-arm them.
After Cuba's Supreme Court upheld Gross' conviction and sentence in August, efforts turned to winning his release on humanitarian grounds. Both his elderly mother and adult daughter are battling cancer and his family has suffered financial hardship since his arrest.
Those who have seen him say the once portly Gross has lost 100 pounds in jail and now looks gaunt and weak. But Dworin and Prinstein said Gross told them that he was in good health and was getting adequate medical attention.
Dworin and Prinstein said Gross did express great concern about the health of family members.
"We gave him a promise to have them present in our prayers for a quick recovery," they wrote.
They said the meeting ended with exchanges of "Shalom" and "Shana Tova" _ the Hebrew words for Peace and Happy New Year.
Paul Haven can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/paulhaven