When' the music stopped'
Or Sella is an Israeli musician, but when he arrived in Chicago, he hadn't played one note since Hamas killed three members of his family and kidnapped nine other relatives during the terrorist attack on his homeland on October 7.
"It really feels like the music stopped," he told a packed sanctuary on Nov. 1 at Chicago's Anshe Emet Synagogue during the first of two consecutive vigils for the 242 hostages of Hamas in Gaza. The second event took place Nov. 2 at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park.
'We stand with them, now and always'
The two vigils--emceed by David Golder, Chair of the JUF Board--drew more than 3,000 people in person and online. "We know our Israeli brothers and sisters will need our help to heal and to rebuild," Golder said. "But for now, what they need most is for us to show them-and the world--that they have the unwavering support of their global Jewish family. That they are not alone. That we stand with them, now and always. That their pain is our pain."
Consul General of Israel to the Midwest Yinam Cohen shared a message on behalf of the Israeli government at both vigils.
Anshe Emet Synagogue's Rabbi Michael Siegel offered rabbinical remarks at the first vigil, and JUF Board member Dana Hirt moderated a discussion with the Israeli families.
The second evening featured insights by North Suburban Synagogue Beth El's Michael Schwab, and JUF Board member Kim Shwachman moderated the discussion with the families.
Both vigils highlighted the non-Jewish allies of the Jewish community who are standing up in solidarity with Israel: Javier Viera, President of Garret Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, spoke at the first vigil, while Illinois Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton, who recently visited Israel with JUF, spoke at the second vigil.
The evenings were also punctuated by prayers for the State of Israel, the IDF, and those being held captive.
'What world is this baby going to grow up in?'
Sella and five others from Israel traveled to Chicago to share the stories of their loved ones who are hostages and plead for their release.
Hamas released two of Sella's relatives, Judith and Natalie Raanan of Evanston, after two weeks in captivity.
"They came home wearing the same clothes" they had on when they were kidnapped, he said, sharing, "Judith was taken in her bath flip flops."
Shani Segal talked about her cousin, Rimon Kirsht, 36, and Kirsht's husband, Yogev Bokshtev, 34. Hamas kidnapped the couple from their home in Kibbutz Nirim. During the attack, Kirsht contacted her mother and described non-stop shooting outside her house. Israeli Defense Forces later found it covered in blood.
"She was such an advocate for human rights: Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ, the MeToo Movement," Segal said of Kirsht. "She stood for every one of them. She fought for everyone, and we need the world to fight for her to get back."
Yael Nidam, Kirsht's sister-in-law, expressed dismay over the misinformation surrounding the war. "It's unfortunate that we have to be here and everywhere to tell the story of our family because there are people that are trying to say nobody was kidnapped and nobody was murdered."
After seeing Kirsht looking thin and without her glasses in a video released by the terrorist group, Nidam called for humanitarian aid for the hostages. " Hamas does not allow the Red Cross to see hostages. People need medication. Babies need formula. People need glasses," she said.
Sandi Feldman thought her sister and brother-in-law, Aviva and Keith Siegel, 64 and 62, were safe in their home shelter in Kibbutz Kfar Aza when Hamas invaded. The next day, Feldman learned that Hamas took the couple hostage.
"She is a kindergarten teacher. She loves babies. If she's taking care of babies in Gaza, that will keep her alive," Feldman said.
Dafna Sella joined her cousin Or to talk about their family. She noted the sweet sound of a baby babbling in the background during the Chicago vigil.
"What world is this baby going to grow [up] in?" she asked. "We have the responsibility to fight the terror, to fight the evil, and create a safe space for our children and adults."
While much of the conversation centered around the war's impact on the Jewish community, Or Sella spoke about others caught up in the violence, stating, "Hamas holds 2.3 million Palestinian hostages in Gaza."
His cousin, Lilach Kipnis, who was killed by Hamas, worked as a psychologist specializing in trauma and fought for the rights of Palestinians, he said.
"When asked about them, she said, 'They are human beings and they deserve the treatment of human beings.' She was murdered, not by Palestinians. She was murdered by terrorists. It's important to realize that," he stated.
Or Sella urged everyone to share their messages. "What happens now, history will remember for generations. We didn't have the chance to hear stories about the Holocaust for decades after what happened. Now we've seen a lot of things that are not less horrible and now we have to live with it…. and do everything we can to bring them back."
All of the speakers expressed deep gratitude to Chicago's Jewish community for the ongoing support, including giving Or Sella a meaningful break from the nonstop work of rescuing his family members. "For the first time [since October 7] I got to experience the music again," he said, sharing that he played the piano at the home of a JUF lay leader who hosted the group for dinner at his Glencoe home.
The Jewish United Fund of Chicago hosted the two vigils in partnership with the Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest, ADL Midwest, AIPAC, American Jewish Committee, Anshe Emet Synagogue, Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, Israel Bonds, Jewish Agency for Israel, Jewish National Fund, North Suburban Synagogue Beth-El, Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Stand with Us.
Julie Mangurten Weinberg is a Northbrook-based freelance journalist with more than 20 years of experience in broadcast, print, and digital media.