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The Park Avenue Synagogue's Cuba Vacation

12:23 PM, Dec 26, 2011 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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The Cuban regime has just announced a prisoner release, at the very end of 2011. This is partly an effort to get some positive publicity before the scheduled visit of the Pope, and partly a cold-blooded move by the regime to release older prisoners who are a burden on their prison system.

park avenue synagogue

Not included in the group to be released is Alan Gross. Here is what the State Department said about that:

“We have seen reports that the Council of State of Cuba has announced the release of 2,900 prisoners and Alan Gross is not among them. If this is correct, we are deeply disappointed and deplore the fact that the Cuban government has decided not to take this opportunity to extend this humanitarian release to Mr. Gross this holiday season, especially in light of his deteriorating health, and to put an end to the Gross family's long plight. We continue to call on the Cuban authorities to release Alan Gross and return him to his family, where he belongs.”

Who is Alan Gross? He is a Jewish American social worker, a long-time USAID contractor who was jailed in December 2009. He now completes two years in a Cuban prison. His wife responded to the news that he would not be released:  

“To receive news in the middle of Hanukkah that the Cuban authorities have once again overlooked an opportunity to release Alan on humanitarian grounds is devastating. Our family is simply heartbroken.”

What was Gross’s crime? What was he doing in Cuba? His job was to connect the tiny Cuban Jewish community to the Internet, and thereby to the global Jewish community.

How has the American Jewish community responded to his two years in prison?  There have been repeated protests, for example, from the American Jewish Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Or perhaps one should be more precise: from some parts of the community have come protests. From other parts has come tourism.

It is bad enough to think of any Americans, Jewish or Christian, frolicking in the sun on the Castro brothers’ prison island, drinking rum on the beach while ignoring the truth of what Freedom House calls “one of the world’s most repressive societies” with “the most restrictive laws on free speech and press freedom in the Americas.”

But Jews touring Cuba while Alan Gross sits in prison now for what would be his third year—precisely for working with the Cuban Jewish community?  Yet the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City, one of the richest and most prestigious congregations in the country, is sponsoring a trip to Cuba in late January. Of course, it is not for mere tourism; the synagogue website calls it an “adult learning trip,” and “an educational and religious mission to learn about how the once-vibrant Cuban Jewish community has sustained itself.”

Now, don’t think Spartan: among the reviews of the Hotel Parque Central, where the Park Avenue synagogue members will stay, we learn that “the hotel has a lovely reception and a roof top swimming pool and bar which boast lovely views of Havana Room was nice and clean and staff friendly. The breakfast buffet has a huge choice of foods and we always ended up eating too much!” and that it’s “the place to spoil yourself and enjoy life.”

Even today, when the Obama administration has liberalized travel to Cuba—and failed to reverse that liberalization when Alan Gross was imprisoned—there are limits. So the Park Avenue Synagogue travelers have to check the box on their application that says they aren’t just on a jaunt; instead they must swear that “I am a member or staff of a U.S. religious organization, and my travel is for participation in a full-time program of religious activities in Cuba.” So of course there cannot be time for mere tourism, and that pool at the Parque Central must remain off limits even if the wonderful breakfast buffet is not. Right?

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