Jewish community in Illinois reels after release of Hamas hostages

The rabbi of released American hostages Judith and Natalie Raanan says their release from Gaza is a miracle; Rabbi Meir Hecht: 'We worked constantly to rally the community, strengthen the observance of Jewish law, and take actions for their sake and for the sake of all captives in Gaza'

In the moments before Hamas announced the release of Israeli captives Judith Raanan and her daughter Natalie, Rabbi Meir Hecht – head of Chabad in Evanston, Illinois – kept receiving phone calls from international journalists wanting to confirm with him that the two would soon be free.
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After the women were abducted into Gaza by Hamas, Hecht’s community became a focus of media attention in the U.S. The fact that the two abductees were not only U.S. citizens, but also citizens who live in the U.S., attracted the media spotlight. Hecht, for his part, continued to convey messages of hope and encouragement through the media.
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נטלי רענן יהודית רענן שוחררו מ שבי חמאס
נטלי רענן יהודית רענן שוחררו מ שבי חמאס
Natalie and Judith Ra'anan in Israel following their release
"Judith Raanan comes to the Chabad house every Saturday and on every Jewish holiday," Hecht said. "She’s one of the most well-known figures in our community, and an integral part of all the activities that my wife and I hold. Raanan is very involved in prayers, Torah classes and all the events the Chabad house hosts throughout the Jewish year. The same goes for her daughter, Natalie, who was also abducted and later released. Her Jewish identity is very close to her heart."
"Judith's involvement in Chabad house activities is evident in her interactions with women in the community. She is highly engaged in the lessons my wife teaches, and overall in everything happening within the community. She’s connected to our children, and she feels like part of our family. Whenever she has the opportunity, she buys gifts for our children and plays with them," the rabbi said.
Life changed in an instant for the rabbi and his community on October 7. On the joyous occasion of Simchat Torah, Hecht received news that Judith and Natalie had been kidnapped to Gaza. "The first thing I did was talk to Judith's family and my family," Rabbi Hecht said in an interview with the Kfar Chabad publication. "We decided that we must do something, take action toward their release – both for them and for the other Israeli captives."
Hecht immediately wrote a letter to the members of his community members, informing them of the abduction of the mother and her daughter. "We asked all our community members to pray for the merit of Judith and Natalie," he said. "This letter was released to the media, and after that we did not have a moment of rest. More and more journalists want to interview us. We made efforts to agree and convey messages of faith in God, alongside describing the deep connection the hostages have to our community."
Hecht was also dealing with his own emotions. "The past two weeks have not been easy. It was very challenging for us, and there was profound heartache over the terrible massacre that occurred in Israel, and specifically the kidnapping of a mother and her daughter, who are members of our community," he said.
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נטלי ויהודית רענן
נטלי ויהודית רענן
Judith and Natalie Raanan
“We all felt as though our biological family member had been taken. It's a deep, internal pain. We worked constantly to rally the community, strengthen the observance of Jewish law, and take actions for their sake and for the sake of all captives in Gaza."
Last week, the community learned about the expected release of Judith and Natalie. "Suddenly, people from all over the world began calling me to find out information, but I didn’t have any myself. When I began to realize what was happening, they had already been released by Hamas,” which took place on Shabbat, he said.
“We were filled with great joy and tremendous excitement. However, our hearts are still heavy with great sorrow for over 200 more captives: men, women and children, who are held by Hamas in Gaza,” he added.
Hecht recalled how he felt after seeing footage of the pair's release. "It seemed to the community as if the dead had been resurrected; it's something that can’t be explained in words. When my wife and I spoke with Judith for the first time after her release, it was hard to believe it was actually happening. It's difficult to express in words the feelings when speaking with someone who was just held in captivity by murderers. Personally, I felt uplifted that such a miracle could occur."
The conversation with Judith Raanan is something Hecht will never forget. "She told us that she and her faith in God stayed strong during her time in captivity. She was certain she would be released from the hands of the terrorists. She also said this sense of security never left her, and that she didn’t fear Hamas. 'I knew that God would get me out of this place,' she said," according to the rabbi.
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הרב מאיר הכט
הרב מאיר הכט
Rabbi Meir Hecht
(Photo: Chabad Evanston)
During his conversation with Judith, much of which cannot be disclosed, she asked Hecht to convey a message to all members of the Jewish community. "I’m grateful for your prayers, and that all of you had thought of me. I thank God and each and everyone who prayed and cared for us. I look forward to seeing all of you very soon," was the message.
After the release of Raanan and her daughter, claims surfaced saying the reason for their release was that the Judith Raanan harbored anti-Israeli views. Hecht firmly refuted these allegation. "These claims are baseless. It is simply a falsehood. Judith Raanan is a Torah-observant woman who loves Israel with all her heart. Heaven forbid anyone says she or her daughter have any hate for Israel.”
Even after the women were released, Hecht continued to spread messages of hope in the American media. “We encouraged Jews to increase their Torah study and prayer, to don tefillin, and to light Shabbat candles. We also urged Jews, through our interviews, to strengthen their faith in God, and prayed that, just as a miracle occurred for Judith Raanan and her daughter Natalie, so too, a miracle would happen for all Israeli captives," he concluded.
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