A memorial service for Jenna Van Gelderen, who was 25 years old when she went missing four years ago, was held at Shearith Israel on Sunday evening, Aug. 29. Without so far finding her, it is the first time Jenna’s family and the community have formally mourned her.
In August 2017, Jenna was house sitting and caring for the beloved family cat at the Druid Hills home of her parents, Leon Van Gelderen and Roseanne Glick, while they vacationed. On the morning of Aug. 19, when Jenna’s brother Will came to the house, he found no sign of his sister or her car. Her purse, cell phone and strangely an Egyptian tapestry that had hung on the wall, were also missing. The front door was locked.
Will filed a missing persons report, but days went by with no sign of Jenna, until a few weeks later, on Sept. 5, her car was found unlocked with her purse and a suitcase containing clothing in a northwest Atlanta neighborhood. There had been signs that someone else had likely driven the car, but no other evidence was discovered.
“Four years ago, we gathered with candles and the shofar to call Jenna home. We believed with the help of God, law enforcement and the power of community, Jenna would return to us,” said Rabbi Ari Kaiman at the memorial service. “Our hope has grown diminished.”
While there have been no confessions or arrests in the case, the family feels certain that Jenna was murdered and last week made a statutory petition to declare Jenna dead. The family continues to plead for anyone who has information to come forward and bring closure to the case.
At the service, Jenna was remembered as a kind, loving, bright and funny young woman who cared about others and was well known among family and friends for her constant questioning. Jenna had been diagnosed with an Autism disorder that caused learning disabilities, and her family feared she was often too trusting in her eagerness to make friends.
In 2019, Oxygen.com interviewed the Van Gelderens, as well as DeKalb County Police Captain Anthony Ford for a “Searching For” episode about Jenna’s case to spur interest and new information in the case. Eventually, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the investigation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation lent additional expertise. However, even a $50,000 reward produced no useful leads.
At the service, Leon Van Gelderen spoke of his frustration with the police investigation, but gave his sincere thanks to the Shearith Israel congregation for their support and Rabbi Kaiman in particular, who he said “has been a source of comfort and inspiration during this ordeal.”
In addition to her bat mitzvah in 2004, Jenna’s baby naming ceremony took place at the shul in 1991. Leon explained that Jenna was named for his father’s sister (his Aunt Jennetta) who died during the Holocaust. Jennetta Van Gelderen was a nurse and caring for a disabled relative where the family lived in the Netherlands when she was captured by authorities. It was Jenna herself, several years ago, doing research, who found records showing that Jennetta had been taken on the same transport to Auschwitz as the famous young Holocaust diarist, Anne Frank.
Leon discovered the rest of the mystery of what happened to Jennetta in the last few years, while the family has been searching for the answers to Jenna’s disappearance. Thanks to records discovered on the Dutch Red Cross website, Leon learned that Jennetta had survived Auschwitz when the Russians liberated the concentration camp in January 1945. However, Polish authorities helped the Van Gelderens find a death certificate showing Jennetta died a few months later in May 1945 at a Polish hospital of encephalitis.
The parallels between Jenna and her namesake are strong, said Leon. Both women loved helping others, and both endured tragic deaths at young ages.
In a community e-mail, Rabbi Kaiman wrote: “The case is still open, and we pray for justice for Jenna, but we no longer expect Jenna to return home.” He added: “Until we know for certain what happened to Jenna, there will be an open wound in our community. We will create the space for her family to grieve what they have lost, and we will pray for certainty to come quickly.”
The investigation remains ongoing. Any tips or information should be directed to the GBI at https://gbi.georgia.gov.
- Fran Putney
- Congregation Shearith Israel
- Federal Bureau of Investigation
- Jenna Van Gelderen
- Druid Hills
- Leon Van Gelderen
- Roseanne Glick
- Will Van Gelderen
- Rabbi Ari Kaiman
- Autism disorder
- learning disabilities
- DeKalb County Police Captain
- Anthony Ford
- Georgia Bureau of Investigation
- Anne Frank
- Jennetta Van Gelderen
- Dutch Red Cross