National Council of Jewish Women leads push to secure release of hostages taken by Hamas

Female leaders, prominent figures urge human rights groups and international governments to demand immediate release of captives held in Gaza 

They range from infants to Holocaust survivors. At least 203 people, mostly civilians, were abducted from Israel during the Oct. 7 terror attacks by Hamas and are being held captive in Gaza.

A diverse group of women leaders, including celebrities, politicians and activists, jointly signed a letter, spearheaded by the National Council of Jewish Women, urging human rights groups and international governments to demand immediate release of the hostages. 

Sheila Katz, CEO of NCJW, pointed to the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim — freeing the captive. “Releasing hostages is considered to be the greatest mitzvah,” Katz told eJewishPhilanthropy. “It’s directly related to ongoing responsibility to work for justice and surpasses many other critical mitzvot. It’s the right thing to do and Jewish thing to do.”

Katz noted that when drafting the letter, she consulted directly with parents, siblings and spouses of hostages. “Because we’ve been involving the families there is a lot of trust in the process,” she said. The letter received over 5,000 signatures in its first 24 hours. Katz said the letter has been spreading through the “power of social media and word of mouth, [especially on] WhatsApp groups,” adding that the “whole campaign from inception to launch was 24 hours.” 

In addition to calling for the hostages’ release, the letter also demands that until then, the captives receive medical treatment and that Hamas refrain from withholding or mutilating the bodies of the people that it murdered.

“International humanitarian law requires that Hamas immediately provide all necessary means to identify those being held hostage, to allow for medical treatment, not to engage in their torture and ill-treatment, and to respect the dignity of remains by not desecrating bodies and returning them for burial,” the letter continues. “We demand that these norms be respected, and stress that all parties to armed conflict must comply with international law.”

Ricarda Louk, whose 22-year-old daughter is believed to have been seriously injured and abducted from the NOVA music festival, where Hamas murdered at least 260 people, called on the international community to force Hamas to get the hostages medical care.

 “Our daughter, Shani-Nicole, has built her life around peace, art and music. She helped organize the [NOVA] music festival to bring people together through the universal language of music and dance,” she said in a statement. “Hamas terrorists invaded the festival, killed hundreds and took many, including our Shani, hostage. She was documented in a horrifying video lying unconscious and naked in a truck. We have information that she is now suffering from a severe head injury and is in dire need of medical care. We demand that world leaders and humanitarian organizations intervene now to ensure Shani and all hostages receive the aid they so desperately need.”

“We’re also doing this as women,” Katz continued. “We care about these families. This should be something everyone feels comfortable signing on to.” 

“We are women leaders, activists, and experts. We are feminists. We are mothers, grandmothers and sisters,” the letter read. “We have dedicated our professional and personal lives to advocate for human rights. We call for the immediate release of all women and children being held hostage by Hamas. Their continued captivity is a standing violation of international humanitarian law and demands an international response. We urge all governments, international organizations, and civil society groups to condemn these crimes and take action to help secure the release of hostages. We urge the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNICEF, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others, to do everything within their power to get much-needed aid to hostages.” 

Celebrity signatories, Jewish and non-Jewish, range from Israeli movie star Gal Gadot to country music singer Maren Morris. 

“As a Jewish Israeli woman who cares deeply about my homeland, my heart breaks for the hostages and their families,” Gadot said in a statement. “This is a humanitarian crisis and we need to raise our voices to demand their safe release and ongoing medical care.” 

Other signatories include Stacey Bendet Eisner, founder of the clothing company Alice + Olivia; philanthropist Stacy Schusterman; Israeli Judge Dorit Beinisch, former president of the Israeli Supreme Court; and professor Yuli Tamir, former chairperson of the Israeli Human Rights Association and former Israeli minister of education and of immigration. 

On Monday, Hamas released the first clip of one of the hostages, which the Israel Defense Forces called “psychological terror.” The short video shows Mia Schem, 21, also abducted from the NOVA festival.

Elected officials and family members of hostages gathered outside the United Nations on Wednesday, some holding photos of the captives, demanding that their release be prioritized. 

In a separate letter last week, more than 110 Jewish organizations from more than 40 countries, including the American Jewish Committee and Jewish Federations of North America, urged the United Nations and governments worldwide to take immediate action to secure the release of the hostages. 

Approximately 20 American citizens remain unaccounted for. It is unclear how many of those were abducted by Hamas. President Joe Biden visited Israel on Wednesday, where he met with the families of the missing and of those murdered by Hamas. Last week, Biden pledged the full force of his administration’s commitment to rescuing hostages. “We’re working on every aspect of the hostage crisis in Israel,” he said in a statement, adding that if he provided detail about what steps the administration was taking, “I wouldn’t be able to get them home.”