NEW YORK, Aug. 6 (JTA) — As thousands of Skulener Chasidim prepared for Saturday night’s celebration of the 44th anniversary of their rebbe’s liberation from a Romanian prison, many had their hearts set on a different liberation. The rebbe’s grandson, Eliezer Zusia Klockhoft, 19, has been missing in Israel since Sunday, and his family and followers of the Skulener rebbe, Yisroel Avraham Portugal, were praying for Klockhoft’s safe return. “We’re hoping every minute for very good news,” said Portugal’s chief aide, Rabbi Shimon Yisroel Fried. “He is a very loved person. Everybody should say Psalms for this boy, who has a Yiddish heart and is a genuine fellow.” A native of Borough Park, Brooklyn, Klockhoft is one of two teenagers with U.S. ties who disappeared in Israel in recent days. The other, 18-year-old Dana Bennet, a waitress from Tiberias whose family lives in San Francisco, has been missing since July 31. Initial reports suggested that the disappearances could be cases of Palestinian terrorism. Police have warned for weeks that terrorists planned to kidnap Israelis, whom they would try to ransom for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. In recent weeks, two Israelis have been abducted. One, soldier Oleg Sheichat, was abducted in the Galilee and later found dead. The other, taxi driver Eliahu Gurel, was kidnapped, taken to Ramallah by his Palestinian captors and eventually liberated by Israel Defense Forces commandos. Nevertheless, police now say the disappearances do not seem to be a coordinated wave of terrorist kidnappings. “There does not seem to be any link between the different cases,” Israeli police spokesman Gil Kleiman said. Investigators have expressed some doubt as to whether Klockhoft actually was kidnapped. Fried, however, said it is “definitely not” possible that the teenager simply ran away. Speaking of Klockhoft and Bennet, U.S. State Department official Stuart Patt cautioned, “We don’t know for a fact yet that these two individuals are victims of any terrorist act. All we know is that they’re unaccounted for and have yet to be found.” “The embassy in Tel Aviv is working with local authorities to try to find out what has happened to them,” added Patt, spokesman for the department’s consular affairs bureau. Klockhoft disappeared near Mount Meron, in northern Israel, during a visit with friends to the grave site of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The group had planned the visit for the yahrzeit of kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Ari. Klockhoft was studying in a Jerusalem yeshiva for the second consecutive year. Two days after the disappearance, Klockhoft’s parents flew to Israel, where they have family and Chasidic supporters. They met with police on Wednesday night. Klockhoft is one of 10 children. A family friend, Rabbi Hershel Weber of Brooklyn, said the family’s emotional state is “not too good.” Meanwhile, the Skulener Chasidim are doing all they can to find the missing youth: Hundreds of Chasidic volunteers from Jerusalem, Haifa and Bnei Brak have been combing the countryside in search of the boy, Fried said. He also said several U.S. congressmen and senators had contacted the rebbe, who lives in Brooklyn but is summering in the mountains of Swan Lake, N.Y., to offer their wishes for the youth’s speedy return. Raphael Bennet, the brother of the missing woman, joined in searches for his sister after arriving in Israel this week with his father, the Jerusalem Post reported. “We have come to help in the searches, to be with the family, to give our support and also be supported,” Raphael Bennet was quoted as saying. Bennet’s parents are divorced, and she has lived with her mother in Israel. Family members reportedly said she had planned to come to the United States in September to be with her father, Binyamin Ben-Yitzhak, and her brother. Members of both families are hoping the two will be back in the United States soon.
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Uriel Heilman is JTA's managing editor, responsible for coordinating JTA's editorial team. He re-joined JTA in 2007 after a stint doing independent reporting in Israel and the Arab world. Before that, he served as New York bureau chief of the Jerusalem Post. An award-winning journalist, he has worked as a reporter for a variety of publications in the United States and in Israel.