A few days after Israeli soldiers knocked on his door near Tel Aviv to inform him that Hamas had captured his son, Ruby Chen embarked on a journey to New York.
Ever since then, he has been patiently sharing his story: from speaking outside the United Nations to participating in day-long meetings with members of Congress from both parties, and meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris. He has also had discussions with the FBI, State Department negotiators, and New York City officials throughout the week.
“We are a delegation of U.S. citizens,” said Chen, a 55-year-old tech executive, in an interview at a Washington synagogue. He was about to address a congregation gathering, under heavy security, for Sabbath evening services.
“Our expectation—and what we have observed—is that the U.S. is not merely taking a supporting role, but an active one in the negotiation process,” Chen added.
Chen, who was raised in New York and holds dual citizenship, was accompanied by a group of about a dozen American families of captives. They have come to the Capitol this week, expressing their anguish while also maintaining a visible presence. Chen himself wears a patch over his left eye due to a stress-induced shingles outbreak. On one occasion, he even passed out in his hotel room during a Lakers game.
Nevertheless, Chen tirelessly answers questions because keeping his 19-year-old son Itay in the public eye is of utmost importance to him. He implores lawmakers and reporters to imagine the pain they would feel if their own child were held hostage. Chen and the other families firmly believe that the U.S. can utilize its influence with partners in the region to “solve this humanitarian issue as soon as possible” and secure the release of the 10 Americans among the 200+ hostages held by Hamas.
An aerospace lobbyist who works with the group, representing American and Israeli clients, sees the attention they are receiving as their best hope. The group is making plans to sustain and increase it.
“In the past, Hamas has held Israelis hostage for years,” said the lobbyist, who chose to remain anonymous. “They fear that if they are not constantly present in the U.S., they will be forgotten.”
Itay, who was also born in America, was serving in the Israeli Defense Forces near the Gaza border when he was captured after fighting with Hamas intruders, according to Chen. Itay has not been able to contact his family, and Hamas has prohibited independent doctors or observers from checking on his well-being.
Chen revealed that American officials have been actively involved since an Oct. 13 Zoom call held by President Biden with the families. The call, initially intended to last 15 minutes, extended to 90 minutes as Biden chose to spend more time with the families. During his meetings on Thursday, he conversed with both conservative Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat from New York.
The meeting on Friday with Vice President Harris at the State Department was an emotional one. Roger Carstens, special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, and Raaj Maan, who leads the FBI hostage recovery fusion cell, along with other high-ranking officials, were also present.
Harris, accompanied by her husband Doug Emhoff, spent over an hour with the families, embracing them and urging them to share their lives before and after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, according to an anonymous U.S. official who was present at the meeting.
Later, Harris tweeted a picture of herself embracing one of the women.
Many of the lawmakers they met with expressed their intention to wear metal tags made by the group, bearing the message “Bring them home—Now!” in Hebrew and English.
However, Chen noted that American officials have withheld numerous details regarding their efforts to secure the hostages’ release due to security concerns.
“To a certain extent, I understand why,” he said. “But it is frustrating.”
Qatar has been assisting in the negotiations for the release of hostages, but Chen stated that there are parallel tracks with other countries, which he did not name. So far, two Americans and two Israelis have been released.
Chen also expressed frustration that they were unable to meet with U.N. officials, who he believes are more interested in other aspects of the conflict.
As Chen spoke with a Times reporter on Friday, Israel was increasing its strikes on Gaza in anticipation of a potential ground invasion. This further jeopardizes the safety of the captives. Chen, however, did not offer a viewpoint on the ground invasion when speaking with American officials.
“Obviously, if you have a child in Gaza, you would be worried,” he said. “But it’s not my area of expertise to make an informed decision on that.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.