“I wanted to begin with today’s wonderful news. I’m told that in Jewish tradition one of the great mitzvahs is pidyon shvuyim. My Hebrew’s not perfect. But I get points for trying. But it describes the redemption. The freeing of captives. And that’s what we are celebrating today because after being unjustly held in Cuba for more than five years, American Alan Gross is free.
Alan’s dedicated his life to others. To helping people around the world develop their communities and improve their lives. Including Israelis and Palestinians. He’s a man of deep faith who once worked for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
Five years ago he was arrested by Cuban authorities simply for helping ordinary Cubans, including Cuba’s small Jewish community, access information on the Internet. And ever since, those who have loved and cared for Alan never stopped working to bring him home.
Judy, his wife of 44 years and their daughters, including his oldest daughter who walked down the aisle without her dad on her wedding day. His mother, who passed away this year without being able to see her son one last time. His whole family, including his sister-in-law Gwen Suarez who joins us here today (looks her way and waves to acknowledge her presence: Hey Gwen). His rabbi. His friends at his congregation in Maryland, Om Kolel, who kept him in their prayers every Shabbat. Jewish and other faith leaders around the country and around the world, including his holiness Pope Francis. And members of Congress and those of us in the United States government.
And Alan’s fought back. He spoke out from his cell. He went on a hunger strike. With his health deteriorating his family worried that he might not be able to make it out alive but he never gave up and we never gave up. As I explained earlier, after many months of discussion with the Cuban government, Alan was finally released this morning on humanitarian grounds.
I spoke to him on his flight. He said he was willing to interrupt his corned beef sandwich to talk to me (laughter). I told him he had mustard in his mustache. I couldn’t actually see it (more laughs in audience). Needless to say he was thrilled and he landed at Andrews in a plane marked United States of America (applause).
He’s going to be getting the medical attention that he needs. He’s back where he belongs in America with his family, home for Chanukah and I can’t think of a better way to mark this holiday with its message that freedom is possible than with the historic changes that I announced today in our Cuba policy (loud cheers). These are changes that are rooted in America’s commitment to freedom and democracy for all the Cuban people, including its small but proud Jewish community.
Alan’s remarks about the need for these changes was extremely powerful.”