WASHINGTON – There was a chair empty at the Gross family’s Thanksgiving dinner last week. It was also empty on Passover, and on last Thanksgiving too. This chair was not, however, awaiting the arrival of the Prophet Elijah or a tardy guest. The chair belongs to Alan Gross, a 62-year-old husband, father and son, who has been condemned to a Cuban jail cell until he is 77 years old. His crime? Cellular phones.

Or plotting insurgency, if you ask the Cubans.

Gross’s wife Judy spoke with The Jerusalem Post on Monday days before the two-year anniversary of Alan’s imprisonment.

Judy Gross is understated, hesitant to express emotion or admit to hardship. She maintains a near-unbearable daily regimen, working her “day job” and then coming home to devote hours in the evening to the campaign to free her husband. Down time, she says, is the most difficult to bear, when she feels that she is alone.

Judy Gross is in the midst of a campaign to raise public awareness in the hopes that something, somewhere, might give. The Jewish community has rallied around her, holding vigils and Alan Gross solidarity Sabbaths.

“Our goal is to make him a household name so that people know what is going on, so that there will be more outrage,” Judy explains.

Earlier in November, Judy flew to Cuba to visit her husband. En route, she met with a representative of the Cuban Jewish community.

“It was one of those very cordial meetings,” Gross recalls. “We talked about the community itself – she wanted to show me the community, its synagogue, and its community facilities.” Absent from Gross’s recollection, however, was any help in securing Alan’s release.

When she met with her husband, Alan Gross was worse off than ever before. He has become immobilized by severe arthritis.

His wife brought him medicine from his American doctor, but said that Gross had no access to arthritis medication and that he worried about the quality of the medical care that he was receiving.

Gross’s biggest problem, however, is not physical.

“In the last two to three months, Alan has gone from being gregarious and outgoing to depressed, angry and very hopeless,” Judy recalls. “We had a lot of hope a few months ago and it kept his hope alive.

Right now I don’t have anything to tell him that can make him more optimistic.”

In October, a prisoner swap deal reportedly fell through, dashing hopes that Gross could be exchanged for Cubans sentenced in America.

The Gross’s weekly phone calls have become more and more pessimistic.

“The last conversation that we had this past Friday was probably the worst I heard him sound,” says Judy. “He’s losing hope very quickly and I can’t give him anything to hope for.”

One source of disappointment is the White House. Judy complains that while both Congress and the State Department – especially the State Department – have worked to support Gross, the White House has remained silent.

“We had one meeting with the National Security Council that we had requested for months, but it was just cordial stuff.

Alan’s mother wrote a personal letter to [US President Barack] Obama, and she didn’t even receive a form letter back.”

Obama’s silence particularly incensed the family since Alan Gross had taken five weeks off from his job in order to work on Obama’s presidential campaign.

In the mean time, the Gross family is picking at straws.

“We want to see what kind of a reaction we receive from the United States and Cuba and we’ll plan from there,” Judy responds when asked about her strategy to get Alan out. “We’re trying to raise the issue in other countries that do have diplomatic relations with Cuba.

When you can’t talk to somebody you can’t solve the problem.”

While he waits, the Cuban government has decided to allow Alan Gross a visitor a week. Judy says that the chief of mission of the US Interests Section in Havana visits him monthly, but requests that any travelers to Cuba try to pay him a visit. At the least, she says, people can drop off a package at the US section.

Reluctant to divulge personal details, Judy admits that until freedom comes, her husband would appreciate books, news magazines and peanut M&Ms.

Quietly, unwilling to talk about her own emotions, Judy too is waiting.

“Life has to go on. I have a family that I’m trying to be happy for and I try not to let my whole life be affected. On Thanksgiving, we have an empty chair in his honor, just as we do at Passover, but we trudge on – its difficult, but we trudge on.”

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