Ilan Grapel hugs his father Daniel inside a JFK Airport...

Ilan Grapel hugs his father Daniel inside a JFK Airport terminal. (Oct. 29, 2011) Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

After nearly five months in an Egyptian prison and an 11-hour flight to New York City, Queens native Ilan Grapel hungered for his favorite meal: chocolate chip pancakes.

But the law student had a few important things to do first. After an emotional reunion with his family at Kennedy Airport Saturday morning, he paused to thank the world leaders who worked to get him freed.

The feelings he experienced as he hugged his father and sister were "overwhelming," he said. "It's hard for me to describe it, honestly."

Grapel, 27, jailed in Cairo since June as an accused Israeli spy, said he was grateful to be back in America.

"All of a sudden the Bill of Rights becomes not just something you saw in the history books but almost becomes a craving," he said.

Grapel, who holds dual American and Israeli citizenship, said he was held in an isolation cell but otherwise treated well by his captors.

Speaking to reporters Saturday, he expressed his gratitude to President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

He arrived in New York with his mother, Irene, who traveled with him from Israel. His father, Daniel, and sister, Michal, greeted him at the airport.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Roslyn Heights) traveled to Israel to help facilitate the release. Ackerman's district includes Oakland Gardens in Queens, where the Grapel family lives.

Ilan Grapel, a law student at Emory University in Atlanta, was an intern 10 years ago in Ackerman's office.

The Egyptian Supreme Council of Armed Forces released Grapel on Thursday, exchanging him for 25 Egyptians held by Israel.

Grapel, who once served in the Israeli army and speaks both Hebrew and Arabic, had been in Egypt working for an organization seeking to relocate Sudanese refugees "stuck in Egypt," Ackerman said.

At the time of his arrest, Egyptian authorities accused Grapel of recruiting people to provide military and political information following the country's Jan. 25 revolution.

Israel has denied he was a spy.

Grapel, locked in a 5-by-7-foot cell, faced a life prison sentence. He could only speak with his family every two weeks.

"They were my contact to the outside world," he said.

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