HAVANA - Cuban Jewish leaders celebrated Hanukka this week with jailed American Alan Gross, who told them he was still hoping to be freed despite not being included in a huge pardon of Cuban prisoners announced last week by President Raul Castro.

Adela Dworin, president of Cuba's small Jewish community, said on Wednesday that Gross appeared to be in good shape mentally and had put on a little weight since they last met in September in the Havana military hospital where he is being held.

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"He looks stronger. He has gained a few pounds and is doing a lot of exercise," she told Reuters.

Gross, 62, has been jailed in Cuba since Dec. 3, 2009, and is serving a 15-year sentence for providing Internet gear to Cubans under a semi-covert US program promoting political change on the communist-ruled island. Cuba views the program as subversive.

His arrest and subsequent conviction in an April trial halted a brief warming of long-hostile US-Cuba relations after President Barack Obama took office in January 2009.

Dworin said they did not directly discuss his feelings about the prisoner release, but she said he was aware of it and told her "he is still hoping his case will be reviewed and he'll be allowed to go home."

Castro said 2,900 prisoners would be freed, in part because of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI next spring, but government officials said Gross was not among them.

Human rights activists said most of the prisoners had been released in the past few days.

In a written statement Dworin gave reporters, she said Gross and his visitors ate potato latkes, chocolate coins or Hanukkah gelt and other traditional holiday treats during their two-hour visit on Monday.

He expressed a desire for normalized US-Cuba relations, she said.

She quoted him as saying, "I believe I would be more useful there (in the US) than here, not only because I miss my family but because perhaps I could put in my grain of sand for the better understanding of what Cuba really represents."

They lit a Hanukkah menorah and took photos that showed Gross, wearing a blue guayabera shirt, blue pants and black shoes, standing with his arms over the shoulders of Dworin and fellow Hanukkah celebrant David Prinstein.

Feeling "Physically Well"

"I feel physically well, my blood pressure is normal, I am not diabetic, I walk 5 miles (8 km) a day within the prison, I exercise on the bars," Dworin quoted him as saying.

He said he weighed 161 pounds (73 kg) and showed off his muscles, Dworin said.

The portrayal of a healthy Gross came after a statement by Gross' wife, Judy Gross, on Saturday, in which she said the news he was not among those to be released was "devastating."

"Alan is 62 years old, has lost 100 pounds (45 kg) in captivity, is increasingly mentally weak and depressed, and is losing all hope that he will ever see his mother again," she said.

Judy Gross, who lives in Washington, has repeatedly asked that he be freed on humanitarian grounds because his mother and their daughter have cancer.

The United States, which says Gross was only providing Internet access to Jewish groups, has made the same plea.

"I again call on President Raul Castro to show compassion for our family's plight and release Alan again during this important holiday for Jews around the world," Judy Gross said in her statement.

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