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After Tsunami, an Agonizing Wait for Chicago Family Seeking Their Son

January 5, 2005
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A Jewish family from the Chicago area is going through the excruciating process of waiting and wondering whether their son survived the tsunami that engulfed 10 Asian nations, killing an estimated 150,000 people. In an Atlanta suburb, a Jewish family awaits word from their daughter, who is believed to be safe — but who hasn’t been heard from since the Dec. 26 disaster.

And in Dallas, a congregation was overjoyed after two Jewish community members reported that a fishing boat had rescued them from the deadly wave.

Ben Abels, 33, a real estate salesman from Evanston, Ill., was on Thailand’s Phi Phi Island during a two-week trip to Asia when the tsunami hit the bungalow where he and a companion were staying. As of Tuesday, his family did not have any word on his whereabouts.

“We don’t know if Ben was trapped under the debris or if he was blown out,” said his father, Bob Abels. “We don’t know anything.”

Bob and his wife, Hope Abels, were joined outside their home Monday by another son, David, and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

They last heard from Ben on Dec. 24, and asked for help from anyone who might have information.

Ben Abels’ companion, Libby North of Seattle, had been in touch with the family, they said. North lost one of her hands and suffered a serious leg injury before she was discovered by aid workers.

“She and Ben were sitting in the bungalow talking, and the bungalow just collapsed,” Bob Abels said.

Hope Abels added that North “remembers the rescuers taking her away and saying, ‘I don’t know where my friend is, I don’t know where my friend is.’ “

Ben Abels loved to travel for extended periods of time, family members said. After extended travel in Central and South America and Europe, this was his first trip to Asia. He already had been in Hong Kong and Cambodia and was about to depart for Bangkok.

According to Schakowsky, the U.S. State Department believes there are Americans stranded on Phi Phi Island. They are working with the Thai government, which has not identified people by nationality.

“There are no American personnel on Phi Phi Island, and as far I can tell there are no plans to go there,” Schakowsky said.

Schakowsky said the Abels family is well known in Evanston, and belongs to the same synagogue as Schakowsky, Beth Emet the Free Synagogue in Evanston.

Herb Adelstein, a pharmaceutical salesman in Chicago, grew up with Ben and last talked to him about three weeks ago.

Adelstein described Abels as someone who “was always looking to the future. He was an ambitious guy. He had bought his own house in Evanston and was a fixture of the community. He had a very positive outlook.”

Adelstein added, “I’m shocked. But I am keeping upbeat about it.”

Meanwhile, Ditza Israeli, 24, of Alpharetta, Ga., reportedly was traveling in India when the tsunami swept across southern Asia.

According to a link on a Web site run by Chabad, Israeli’s last e-mail to her parents, sent on Dec. 24, said she was spending the winter holiday in Varkala, Kerala, on India’s western coast.

Three e-mails posted on a BBC missing-persons site following an inquiry by Terri Israeli, Ditza’s mother, suggested that the area where Ditza was traveling wasn’t hit hard by the tsunami.

One posting came from a traveler who indicated that Varkala is on high ground, but that Internet and phone access was “hard to find in this area.”

Another poster wrote that while he did not meet Israeli, “there was a big wave” on Dec. 26, “but not too serious — no one was washed away, just a few bags and cameras.”

The third e-mail, sent by a man writing from Kovalam in Kerala, claimed that “no one was lost” on either Kovalam or Varkala beaches.

“Although the effects of the tsunami were visible, it presented no danger on either of these beaches,” the e-mail read.

In Dallas, friends of two longtime community members were relieved to get an e-mail alerting them that Gerald and Bobbie Nehman had survived the tsunami.

Their biggest fear came when they lost touch with Bobbie Nehman’s brother, David, whom they had traveled to visit in southern India, the Nehmans said.

“We were stranded and protected at the time on a memorial rock at the tip of India, where three oceans meet, and watched the wave hit the shore in front of us,” Bobbie Nehman said in a Dec. 27 e-mail to Lynda Nicholson, the music librarian for Temple Emanu-El’s choir. Both Nehmans have sung in the choir for many years and are active in other synagogue programs.

“We were rescued by small fishing boats at night with up to 1,000 others,” Bobbie Nehman wrote. “We had left my brother’s island resort less than 24 hours before the wave hit, after a beautiful visit of three days. We are worried about my brother because all communications lines are cut to the Maldive Islands, which were right in the path.”

On Dec. 31, however, they reported that David was well.

Bobbie, an artist and certified massage therapist, and Gerald, an environmental expert, sent another message on Dec. 31.

“We are two hours from 2005 and are feeling both our good fortune and the pain for those who have been so devastated,” Bobbie wrote.

Temple members were told the good news at Friday night services.

“I gave a sermon on the tsunami, and I was able to mention that the Nehmans had gotten through it,” Rabbi David Stern told the Texas Jewish Post.

This story includes feeds from Daniel Dorfman of the Chicago Jewish News, Steve Israel of the Texas Jewish Post and the staff of the Atlanta Jewish Times.

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