When Or Sella was finally reunited with his relatives Judith and Natalie Raanan, Evanston residents who were held captive by Hamas for nearly two weeks, he embraced them both deeply.
“Hugging them was the most intense hug I have ever felt,” Sella said.
While family members were tremendously relieved to have the Raanans back, Sella said seven other relatives — including a 3-year-old — remain captive in Gaza. Three other members of their family were murdered by Hamas militants in the Oct. 7 attack that sparked the current conflict.
On Wednesday, Sella and two other families from Israel whose loved ones were killed or captured by Hamas attended a vigil at Anshe Emet Synagogue on the North Side, calling for the safe return of the 240-some hostages being held by Hamas.
“We are talking about American citizens, we are talking about family, and we are talking about families of human beings that believe in freedom, believe in peace, and no one should be a hostage of a terror organization,” Sella told reporters.
“No 3-year-old child should be taken hostage by a terror organization. As human beings, everyone needs to do everything they can to bring them back home.”
A few hundred gathered at the Lake View synagogue for the vigil, which was organized by the Jewish United Fund of Chicago.
“We’re here to express our heartbreak, our horror and our outrage to the world, and we’re here to do it with one voice,” David Golder, chairman of JUF Chicago’s board of directors, said during the vigil.
“Tonight, we add our voices to theirs, demanding the safe return of the 240 people that are confirmed being held captives by Hamas terrorists.”
The delegation of Israeli families landed in Chicago on Tuesday night and met with a dozen Illinois state legislators to share their stories, the consulate general of Israel to the Midwest said.
The Raanans were in Israel to help celebrate the 85th birthday of Judith Raanan’s mother, who is also Natalie’s grandmother, and to commemorate Simchat Torah, the Jewish holiday marking the conclusion of the annual cycle of Torah readings. They were staying in Nahal Oz, a kibbutz near the Gaza border, when they were taken hostage.
Natalie Raanan landed in Chicago from Israel on Monday without her mother. Friends have said Judith Raanan, 59, is reluctant to leave her elderly mother’s side.
Sella and his cousin Dafna Sella said the two women are doing well physically but declined to give a more detailed update, saying the mother and daughter “need time to heal” before they can speak about their experiences.
Dafna Sella shared some details about one of her slain family members, Lilach Kipnis, saying she was a social worker and a psychotherapist who “worked for the rights of Palestinians and dedicated her life to treating trauma in children.”
Dafna Sella said the Raanans didn’t know that other members of their family had been killed and taken hostage by Hamas until they were released. Or Sella said he felt like the assailants who attacked his family “took my childhood,” because of his fond memories of them growing up together in Israel.
More than 1,400 people in Israel have been killed, most of them civilians who were slain in the initial Oct. 7 Hamas rampage that started the fighting.
Hamas has said it would let the more than 200 hostages go in return for thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, which has dismissed the offer. In retaliatory attacks by Israel, 8,805 Palestinians have died, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza.
Shani Segal, whose cousin Rimon Kirsht and her husband were taken by Hamas, also flew from Israel to speak on behalf of her family at the vigil.
“We should not allow civilians to be taken from their homes; the hostages need to be released instantly,” Segal said. “We want the whole world to stand with us and free the hostages. We should not let terror win.”