“Their only crime,” said Sarai Cohen, “was being Jewish.”

Cohen is the sister of 59-year -old Evanston resident Judith Raanan, and the aunt of Judith’s daughter, 18-year-old Natalie Raanan.

Sister of Judith Raanan/aunt of Natalie Raanan in video message from Israel.

“We are devastated,” Cohen said.

Judith and Natalie were in Israel for the Jewish Holidays, and the 85th birthday of Judith’s mother/Natalie’s grandmother. The kibbutz where they were staying was overrun by Hamas terrorists last Saturday, as part of the militants’ invasion of Israel.

The pair is believed being held hostage in the Hamas stronghold of Gaza, with other Americans and Israelis. They have not been heard from since the Hamas attack.

The message from Cohen, who is safe in Israel, was played for friends and relatives of the Ranaans, who gathered at a private home in Evanston for the vigil with Judith’s congregation, Chabad of Evanston.

Former State Sen. Jeff Schoenberg of Evanston was one of the speakers.

“Our hearts ache,” he said.

“We are gathered to give unconditional emotional and spiritual support the family.”

Schoenberg said Judith Raanan was an active member of Evanston Chabad, “a regular worshipper and an important presence.”

Natalie is a 2023 graduate of Deerfield High School.

Her uncle, Avi Zamir, said Natalie was taking a gap year before planning to return home and go to college.

“She wanted to take a break after high school,” he said.

Sigal and Avi Zamir.

Natalie’s paternal aunt, Sigal Zamir broke into tears while saying, “I want them to come back alive. They’re innocent and loving. They didn’t do anything.”

Rabbi Meir Hecht, of Chabad, said it is time for everyone to “fortify our hope and pray.”

At podium: Jeff Schoenberg and Rabbi Meir Hecht.

The rabbi said that “hopelessness is one of tools and goals of terrorists,” which will ultimately lose out to the “spiritual weapons of hope and goodness.”

Prayers from the Book of Psalms were recited.

“We always turn to the Book of Psalms in times of need,” the rabbi said.

He also gave another message, directed to Judith and Natalie.

“Keep your faith, keep strong. You will rejoin this group and we will welcome you home.”

Update: Family members told Chicago television stations Friday that an Israeli government official had told them that the two women are believed to be alive and being held as hostages by Hamas in Gaza.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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