Judy Gross: Prisoner of Love

Judy Gross: Prisoner of Love

Bethesda Magazine interview

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Judy Gross was enjoying life: gardening at her comfortable Fox Hills neighborhood home in Potomac, watching her two grown daughters as they started their careers, and seeing her husband Alan’s international development consulting business prosper. But all of that changed in December 2009, when Alan failed to call upon landing at Dulles International Airport from his latest business trip.

The next day Judy Gross learned that he had been arrested by Cuban authorities while attempting to set up Internet links in Jewish synagogues in Havana.

In 2011, he was convicted of illegally bringing satellite communications equipment into Cuba and sentenced to 15 years. The case attracted international attention, and soured already tenuous relations between the United States and Cuba.

While fighting to free her husband, Judy Gross endured personal hardship, as well. The financial strain forced her to sell the family home. And she had to go it alone as her eldest daughter, Shira, went through a double mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer, and her mother-in-law, Evelyn Gross, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

Once a part-time family therapist, the 62-year-old now works full time as coordinator of the psychiatric day care program at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. At press time, Gross was still hoping her 63-year-old husband would be released. She talked with us about their ordeal from her one-bedroom apartment in Cleveland Park.

Q & A

Where did you and Alan meet?

We met through a B’nai B’rith youth organization when I was in high school. He lived in Baltimore and I lived in Silver Spring. We didn’t start dating until my freshman year in college. I went to Emerson College in Boston and then to the University of Maryland, where he was studying.

The thing that attracted me to him was his voice. He’s a wonderful singer. When I heard his voice, it was a sort of chemistry, and I knew that was the guy for me. We’ve been married going on 42 years, minus two years we haven’t been together.

What did Alan do for work?

He did a lot of community work with the Jewish Federation. He worked with B’nai B’rith kids and teenagers. He was assistant director of a local Jewish youth group. He also did a lot of music, leading songfests. He got interested in international business through my brother-in-law, who was doing import-export. That’s when Alan started getting international experience.

He loves traveling. He loved trying to improve other people’s living conditions or lives. He worked with Palestinians. He was helping them get sheep across the border to Israel. He would go on about how the trucks were sitting at the border. He did a lot of work in the Middle East, in Africa. He did work for feasibility studies. A company would come to him and ask, “If we open up a factory or store in this area, can this be economically feasible?”  

What was he doing in Cuba?

When he visited Cuba a few years earlier on a Jewish relief mission, he saw there were a lot of needs. Then when he got this opportunity [to bid on a U.S. Agency for International Development contract through Bethesda-based Development Alternatives Inc., or DAI], he jumped at it. He loved the Cuban people, he loved the country of Cuba, he loved the Jewish people. He was helping with Internet access.

The Cuban government charged that he was working under a U.S. government contract, yet he apparently didn’t tell people that. He said he was working just as an individual with the Jewish community. Is that true?

He never wanted to jeopardize anyone. In Cuba, you never know who could be a government agent. That’s why he didn’t tell them—not because he was doing anything wrong, but because he wanted to protect them.

Did his employer, DAI, prepare him for the risks?

Alan would not have gone to Cuba if he had thought this would happen. He would never have put his family at risk. No, I don’t think he had any idea this would happen.

How often do you hear from Alan?

We speak every Friday. He’s always hungry for news. He’s just totally in a vacuum there. He hears Cuban news, and the Cuban news is always about how bad America is. So I told him about the Pope’s visit [in late March] and Rene Gonzalez [a convicted Cuban spy on probation after serving time in a Florida jail] going back to Cuba to see his brother [who had cancer]. Not that that’s going to help us, but I have to give him some hope.

What are those calls like?

They are always awkward because he calls me at work and there’s no privacy. It’s usually about 15 minutes. I don’t speak freely, I speak in generalities. If there’s anything going on and I would like to tell him, I say there are a lot of things going on. He asks if there are a lot of coals in the fire—that’s his expression—and I say, “Yes, there are a lot of coals in the fire,” or not so much.

You’ve been able to visit him.

The visits are a strain. Altogether I’ve been there three times. It’s hard seeing somebody in his condition and then knowing you are going to leave and not know what’s going to happen.

Usually they are two-hour visits. I just go into a hallway, then to a side room, which is normally a treatment room. They put in plants and leather chairs. Twice they have let us have a house for a day. But there are guards in the house and in the rooms. It’s not very relaxing, because we know they are listening and the visit is going to end.

The last visit was in November 2011. Since he’s been in jail, he’s lost a total of 105 pounds, from about 255 down to 150. Just in the past month he dropped another 3 pounds. He said the [food] portions are smaller and the quality has gone down because of the economy in Cuba.

How was Alan’s demeanor?

He was really happy to see me at the beginning. Then, after we spend time together, his demeanor is always kind of depressed. It can be very cathartic in terms of getting his anger out, even though it’s not directed at me. I’m the one he does all his complaining to.

What was his trial like?

It was kind of like watching a kangaroo court. The prosecutor got up and gave a big soliloquy about how bad the United States is and how we shouldn’t be interfering in their lives. Then he went on about the past six presidents and all the bad things they did to the Cuban people.  

Did DAI help during the trial?

No, they did not. They have not offered any financial help for his legal representation. They paid out his contract, but that’s it. The total was $500,000. I have not had any contact with them for months.

If you’re with the State Department or the CIA or the U.S. Army, they send in the Marines or swap a bad guy to get you out. But that hasn’t happened with Alan. Does that make you angry?

Yes, it makes me angry. I knew in broad terms what he was doing there. I knew he was bringing Internet stuff to the Jews. But I’m furious that nobody has come to his rescue. He was working on a USAID contract.

What do you think the U.S. government should be doing at this point?

The State Department is working night and day on his case. My attorneys remain in touch with them. But he’s not home yet. That’s the bottom line.

Here we let Rene [Gonzalez] go to see his brother, and I expected [the Cuban government] to do the same thing for Alan. I was in denial thinking the Cuban government couldn’t be this horrible. But I’m now feeling they just don’t care.

What has the support been like from the Jewish community?

The Jewish community in D.C. has been great. They have sponsored vigils, they are helping me with public relations and they are great. The Jewish community in Cuba, Alan feels close to them. They are wonderful people. They are in a difficult spot. I don’t expect them to speak out at all because they are in a precarious position.

How do you keep yourself going?

There are some days when I literally drag myself out of bed and put one foot in front of the other and go to work. Work is a great distraction. There are other days where I’m really depressed and I feel really hopeless.

But I take care of myself when I’m on overload. I just stop everything and take it easy. I have a special community of friends who have been very supportive. I see them on Friday nights for Shabbat dinner.

As a pyschotherapist, you’re used to helping people. You must have to find a place to unload your troubles, too.

I’ve been very tempted to tell some of these patients, “I can top that.” But of course, I wouldn’t do that. Yes, going to work is draining in itself. Then I come home from work and I have 25 emails to respond to and calls from my lawyer.

As a psychologist, what would you advise someone in your position?

To take one day at a time. To accept what your life is and do the best you can. And to be an advocate for Alan.

What do you miss most about being together?

I miss going camping in Maine every summer. We used to do that a lot. For a while it was the two of us, then the whole family. I miss having someone coming home and saying, “Hey, let’s get a drink or go get a bite to eat.” I miss that companionship.

How are your daughters doing?

My older daughter, Shira, who is 27, has had a rough time. She really needed her father by her side. She got her diagnosis when he was in jail. He really wanted to be by her side, but obviously that wasn’t able to happen. She works in New York in digital marketing, but now she’s in Israel for a few months, just healing and mentally getting herself back together.

My younger daughter [24-year-old Nina] is very close to Alan. They used to do the fun father-daughter stuff together. She is working as a teacher in Oregon. She is very upset when she misses a call from him. She calls me in tears. Emotionally it’s taken a toll on her.

And Alan’s mother?

She has inoperable lung cancer. She takes medication daily that just really knocks her out and has side effects, so she doesn’t go far from her house. Emotionally she’s a wreck. Not because of her illness, but she just is so fearful that she will die before she sees Alan again.

What will you do when he comes home?

We will lock ourselves in the apartment for a few days and see where he’s at emotionally and physically, let him reabsorb into the community. After that, he’ll go right to his mother’s. Then maybe out for dinner or we’ll take a trip to the beach.

Eric Niiler is a freelance writer living in Chevy Chase.

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