For Judith Raanan and her teenage daughter, Natalie, the voyage to Israel that began in September was abundant with meaning, a trip to celebrate the Jewish holidays and the 85th birthday of Judith’s mother at a kibbutz in the south of the country.
But then, Israel was so fundamental to their lives and family — both mother and daughter have deep ties there, while making their home in the Chicago suburbs — that the visit was more an evocation of things familiar than a landmark exploration of something new.
That celebration was transformed a week ago into an unimaginably dark and violent nightmare. When Hamas terrorists invaded Israel in a surprise assault, they swept into the kibbutz where Judith and Natalie were staying, less than a mile from the Gaza border. According to relatives, Natalie and Judith attempted to hide in a shelter, but they disappeared in the chaos and are believed to have been taken hostage by attackers.
Family members in Israel were told on Friday that the pair were in Gaza, but that it was not known whether they were dead or alive.
The two are among at least 14 American citizens who remain unaccounted for.
Back in the Chicago area, relatives and friends are watching for word of their fate and are praying for their safe return. At a vigil Thursday evening in Evanston, Ill., a short distance from the Raanan home, a group of them watched a video message from Judith Raanan’s sister, Saray Cohen, who lives in Israel.
“Their only crime was being Jewish,” Ms. Cohen said.
Friends and family described Judith, who often went by her Hebrew name, Yehudit, as an effervescent woman devoted to her daughter and her Jewish faith. Judith, 59, spent her early life in Israel before settling in Chicago, where she has been an active participant in Shabbat services and a skilled cook who loved to prepare Israeli food. She became an ardent painter who proudly gave friends her artwork, much of it reflecting biblical and religious themes and the colors and rhythms of Israel.
At one point, she created a line of skin-care products named after her mother, Tamar; she also recently worked as a home aide for older people, friends said.
She was driven by her connection to Israel, and her longing for it. People close to Judith said she was typical of many American Jews: She kept one foot in the United States and one in Israel, often torn between the communities she treasured in both countries. For Judith, friends said, it was Israel where she felt the most at home.
“She was quite Israeli, whether she was here or there,” said Chavah Rochel Golden, a friend of nearly a decade in Chicago, referencing her devotion to learning and exchanges of opinion. “She missed being around Israelis. She felt at home with Israelis, and she missed that — the energy of Israel.”
Natalie, who is 17, shared her mother’s connection to Israel, nurturing relationships there even as she lived the life of a suburban American teenager. She recently graduated from a public high school in Deerfield, Ill., and was taking a gap year to travel and explore her interests in fashion and interior design.
“She’s a sweetheart,” said her uncle, Avi Zamir. “She loves animals, likes life, likes friends — typical teenager.”
On Natalie’s Facebook page, among posts of snowy winter landscapes and messages supporting the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, she included a close-up selfie of her face. Underneath the picture, Judith wrote in a comment: “The most beautiful girl. And smart too. My daughter.”
Yehudis Hecht, a friend of Judith and the wife of Rabbi Meir Hecht, whose synagogue Judith attended, recalled Judith’s outspokenness, her passion for debate and her generosity with her friends. Every week, Judith would come to their home for a Shabbat celebration.
“She loved our community. We were everything to her, like family,” she said. “She loved to share her thoughts, knowledge, dreams and experiences with all of us.”
Rivka Benyihoun said Judith had become more observant in her faith over time. Ms. Benyihoun and her husband run a center in downtown Chicago for Chabad, a movement of religious philosophy that is open both to Jews and non-Jews; the center holds services, classes and activities. She noted that Judith kept kosher in her home and hosted gatherings for women in her Evanston apartment, where they discussed Judaism and politics.
While in Israel, Judith texted Ms. Benyihoun to send her good wishes for the Jewish New Year and tell her that she was going to a holy site in Israel to pray.
“She has a sensitive and deep soul,” Ms. Benyihoun said. “She wanted her daughter to stay connected to Israel.”
A week after the Raanans’ disappearance, the people who know them in the United States are left in an increasingly anxious state of limbo, wondering where the mother and daughter are, whether they are alive and when they might be returned.
Carol Krikorian, a former neighbor of the Raanans in the Chicago suburbs, used to be able to look out her back window and see Natalie playing with a friend or sitting under their gazebo, she recalled.
“I look out my back window now and I think, ‘How is it that this girl who was in the backyard with her friends is now in the hands of these people, these monsters?’” Ms. Krikorian said, referring to the Hamas attackers.
Ms. Golden, a friend who met Judith Raanan at religious services in Chicago, said she has been preoccupied with thoughts of where Judith and Natalie were being held.
“I’m thinking, where is she?” she said. “Is she enclosed in something with her daughter? And if she was, this would be a very quiet time for Yehudit. She wouldn’t give up.”