A Jewish school in Jericho where students have prayed daily for three years for the release of American Alan Gross in Cuba rejoiced Thursday over his sudden freedom.
Students at Schechter School of Long Island danced and sang in tribute to Gross, 65, who was released Wednesday as part of a historic agreement to re-establish relations between Cuba and the United States.
"Now that he is finally free, it's amazing," said Doug Holden, 10, whose fifth-grade class spearheaded the school's efforts to write letters aimed at boosting Gross' spirits.
Doug and his classmates celebrated when they heard the news by running through the hallways with U.S. and Israeli flags and chanting in Hebrew, "God does miracles; miracles are real."
The school has prayed for Gross, who is Jewish and was arrested in Cuba in December 2009, every morning since mid-2011, announcing over the public address system the number of days he'd been imprisoned. They periodically sent him letters, hand-delivered by people traveling to Cuba.
Cantor Marcey Wagner, principal of Schechter's elementary school, said the couriers included a local attorney who visited Cuba last year.
The lawyer, who did not want to be identified, delivered a batch of letters to the head of Havana's Jewish community, who brought them to the jail where Gross was being held, Wagner said.
That was in October 2013. That December, the school received a letter from Gross thanking Wagner and the students for the correspondence and saying they were the first Hanukkah presents he'd received since being jailed.
The letter arrived in an envelope with a Washington, D.C., postmark and no return address, Wagner said.
"I was deeply moved by the warmth and encouragement of their messages," Gross wrote. "I very much look forward to regaining my freedom and hope when that day arrives, or shortly thereafter, that I will be able to join with Schechter School to celebrate."
He added that a visit "would also enable me to take a look at the house in New Hyde Park where I lived my first 10 years." A family spokeswoman said Gross was actually born in Rockville Centre.
Cindy Dolgin, head of school at Schechter, said receiving the letter was "completely shocking."
Gross traveled to Cuba several times in 2009 on a contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development for a project to improve Internet access for the Jewish community there. He brought in cellphones, wireless devices, computers and network equipment. On the final night of his fifth visit that year, Gross was arrested and told he was being investigated for smuggling contraband. Cuba considered him a spy.
Wagner told the students Thursday that sometimes she'd lose hope that Gross would ever be freed, but then "I would look at your faces.
"You made a difference. . . . We've witnessed a real Hanukkah miracle."