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A New Acquisition and the Vigil for Alan Gross 0 Comment(s)

Rabbi Arnold Saltzman gives "Free Alan Gross" sign to Executive Director Laura Cohen Apelbaum. The sign shows Gross and his wife, Judy, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Alan Gross's recent release from captivity in Cuba marks a moment of celebration and reflection for the Washington-area Jewish community. Among the many activists celebrating is Rabbi Arnold Saltzman, a leader of a weekly vigil for three years in front of the Cuban embassy.

In the days following Alan Gross's release, Rabbi Saltzman donated a "Free Alan Gross" sign to the Society's archival collections. We took this special opportunity to record his first-hand experience of the weekly vigil as well as his perspective on the Jewish community's responsibility to defend those who cannot defend themselves.

JHSGW (Q): What was your reaction when you first heard about Alan Gross's arrest and imprisonment, and at what point did you decide to act?

Rabbi Saltzman (A): I heard about Alan Gross's imprisonment over four years ago. My friend and neighbor, Gwen Zuares, is Judy Gross's sister. Early on, she asked if I knew about Alan, and then she kept me informed. She was distraught and greatly concerned for his well-being and for his family's well-being. Gwen let me know when the demonstrations were beginning, and I got involved as I thought this type of demonstration could have positive results.

Q: With so many worthy advocacy causes swirling around us, how were you able to attract people to this issue and get them involved in the vigil? 

A: The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), its executive director Ron Halber, and staff (especially Adina Remz) deserve credit as does the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington for helping get people to the vigil in the beginning. 

We do not know why some people chose to participate nor could we make it their priority. I shared some of my previous activism experience in order to interest people. From the beginning, I wrote statements to be read at the vigil. These gave focus, reminding people over and over what we were there for, what we were trying to accomplish, and how it fulfilled both a religious and civic responsibility. 

Q: What is the story behind the sign that you recently donated to the Society? 

A: These signs were carried every week at the vigil and were in synagogue lobbies around the Washington area. We brought one to the State Department so they would see Alan's photo – a reminder. 

Originally, The Jewish Federation provided a grant to print the posters. We began to run short, though, so I spoke to one of my congregants, Ed Apple, who owns Prince Frederick Graphics. I asked him for a price for reprinting, but he said he knew Alan Gross and gave us a gift. In addition, Gwen said she would find the money to print it, but I don't think it was needed. 

I donated this "Free Alan Gross" sign to the archives of the Jewish Historical Society to remind our community, now and in the future, of what we can accomplish together. Engagement with the government as well as asserting our rights to demonstrate as citizens are essential to finding a responsible resolution to a difficulty which otherwise might have been ignored or lost on someone's desk.

Q: Your leadership in this kind of advocacy work began long before the vigil in front of the Cuban embassy. How did your involvement with the vigils on behalf of Soviet Jewry, both in New York and in Washington, shape your tactics in Alan Gross's case? 

A: We learned from earlier demonstrations, including those for desegregating the New York City School system, and demonstrating for Soviet Jewry both in NYC and in Washington, D.C., that there were many good results. 

As a high school student, I marched in Harlem, and people applauded at the doors of their brownstone buildings. They were looking for a positive change. That was accomplished. When we demonstrated in Washington, D.C. opposite the Soviet Embassy, we demonstrated in silence. It was just the presence of demonstrators of every age group, from all walks of life, sent a message to those at the embassy. People who cared could be found at these vigils. Those who returned more than once, and those from our congregations and from the interfaith community. 

Once, in front of the Soviet Embassy, we sang the "Hush of Midnight," a contemporary S'lichot service prior to Rosh Hashanah, including the prayer Ashre -- "Happy are they who dwell in Thy house, they will ever praise Thy name." We sang Sh'ma Koleinu -- "Hear our Voice, accept our prayer in mercy, have mercy upon us." We sang Mi She'anah Avraham Avinu, Hu Ya'aneinu -- "May the One who answered Abraham, May that One answer us." After that day, we were asked not to sing anymore. Perhaps they were listening at the Embassy?  

We learned that there would always be individuals who said what we were doing was a waste of time and energy. We read such opinions in the press. Yet, I never believed that, as I saw us a community strengthened by these demonstrations. Everyone sought a way to express their concern. I made sure that my children, Josh and Michael, participated in the Soviet Jewry vigil, so that they could have that experience, continuing my experience and their grandparents' experience.

Read Rabbi Saltzman's memories of his involvement with the local Soviet Jewry movement.

In this recent situation, it was more difficult in that there was misinformation coming from some media originating from the Cuban government. That created some reluctance and doubt among some in the community who did not show up or discontinued their participation. From previous experience, I knew this could be a long process requiring persistence and belief that Alan Gross and his family had a spotless record of work and commitment to the Jewish community and humanitarian work. 

Q: The vigil that you lead was a critical part of a much larger effort. Where did it fit within the broader context of organizations and government institutions fighting for Alan Gross's release? 

A: Most importantly, this vigil gave Alan Gross himself the hope that people cared and were not going to let up. How does one keep sane for five years in a high security prison, while you're ill, losing weight, knowing of the emotional and physical deterioration of many loved ones at home, and unable to do anything about it? 

Our vigil let the Cubans know we were serious in our concern, and you know they recorded and taped us every time we were there, and their employees and diplomats exited the building as the sound of voices magnified by the bullhorn penetrated the walls of the building. Our vigil was seen by Cubans and people going to Cuba as they applied for visas across the street. This vigil let our government know that this was urgent – a priority that needed attention. We are citizens who spoke up for a fellow citizen who was not politically connected. 

The JCRC and Jewish Federation used their advocacy and connections to make this a priority in the halls of Congress. We coordinated with the JCRC and the Gross family's wishes and the requests of their legal representatives, and we tried to do what was helpful and supportive while their legal team worked other channels. A group of us from the vigil went to meet with a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South America and Cuba, Deputy Secretary of State Alex Lee, to express our concern, and inquire what else they were doing for Alan Gross and what else they thought we might do. 

At that meeting, I communicated that the message Alan Gross had done nothing wrong was getting lost in media coverage and that they had to find a way to correct that. Without that assurance that he was innocent, people were reluctant to act on his behalf. Shortly afterwards, there were news stories and statements steering the conversation back to where it needed to be - Alan Gross is in prison and needed to be freed. He had been sentenced unjustly. 

Q: Alan Gross's release came alongside a monumental breakthrough in U.S.-Cuban relations. How do you perceive your role and the role of the Washington-area Jewish community in contributing to this change? 

A: Our vigil to free Alan Gross was part of a much broader strategy to gain his release. For some it may be insignificant, but for those who participated, it has left an indelible impression. We used our right to demonstrate and assemble to good effect. We spoke out. We continued a time-honored American and Jewish tradition of not accepting the stern outcome as final, and we were determined to overcome this cruel and unjust imprisonment. 

Along the way, we discovered something we already knew from previous vigils like the one for Soviet Jewry: there is a community in more than name and it does not care which denomination you belong to. We had Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Humanistic Jews, Catholics and all participate in these vigils.

We found a caring community for Alan Gross and his family. We found people with Cuban roots, such as Carlos Lumpuy who translated my words into Spanish at the demonstrations. Students from the Hebrew Academy, BBYO, and public high schools joined us and brought our concerns back to their fellow classmates. Educational Directors brought the issue to their students. 

We established that even though it was difficult to park near the Cuban embassy, we could find parking, we could show up, and we could learn from each other. Some brought prayers recited by rabbis, some brought songs, sung by their cantors, some brought presence. Our message was Hineni! -- "I am here!" -- and willing to do whatever is necessary to resolve this matter, and to give thanks when it happens. We learned that it can be a lonely occupation to do this when you return every week.  

Q: Now that Alan has returned to the U.S., how do you suggest we preserve this story for future generations? What are the core lessons we need to ensure future generations learn from this story? 

A: The first lesson is one of religious and philosophical responsibility. As Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) teaches, while we are not required to finish our efforts, we are not free from trying. Phyllis Margolius, Dr. Richard Morgenstein, and Daniel Mann joined us and believed in this, yet they did not live to see this wonderful day of Alan Gross's freedom.  

We learn that Pidyon Shvuyim, rescuing the hostage or captive, is the responsibility of the community and a great mitzvah. We learn that "to Save a Life, is to Save a World." We know that Alan Gross will not be the only person to be treated in this manner. Alan Gross can enjoy his life in freedom and rescuing one American gives us confidence that our government values its citizens and will do whatever is necessary to protect and defend them.  

Our government listened and responded to our concern and the concerns of the family of Alan Gross as articulated so eloquently by Judy Gross. Ultimately, President Barack Obama had to make the decision to do this, removing a stumbling block for a new day in Cuban-American relations. Alan Gross originally went to Cuba to help Cubans, and ironically, his unjust imprisonment and his being freed will result in helping Cubans by changing American policy.

Saving a good man who strongly identifies as both American and Jewish, whose first words to the public were "Chag Sam'e'ach" should give us something to ponder. The lesson of history is that we cannot be silent. Saving one man and participating in that cause gives us a reason to rejoice. There are times when good people need to know what is right and how to act on those beliefs. There are those who will minimize the relationship of our presence, and I do not want to exaggerate its importance either.

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