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As Their Children Go off to Israel, Parents Wrestle with Fear of Terrorism

September 4, 2003
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In a dramatic act revealing the extent of parental concern over sending children to Israel, a New York father filed a restraining order to keep his daughter from studying in the Jewish state this fall.

One of five Americans who were slated to depart Tuesday for Israel’s three-year Elite Academy high school, Bianca Brichkov, 15, instead has returned to her all-girls Catholic school in the Bedford section of the Bronx, where she is one of the few Jews in her class.

“I don’t want my daughter to go to a place where constant war is going on,” Vladimir Brichkov told JTA by phone.

“Would you send your kids to Israel right now?” he asked. “I wouldn’t.”

Bianca’s mother, Florina Shein, who contends her ex-husband filed the claim just “to spite me,” hopes to revisit the issue in family court later this month, when she will dispute visitation rights and child support.

In the meantime, Bianca, who had joined her peers in New York who were taking off for the program, said, “I’m very, very upset about it.”

“I really wanted to go and I was upset that my own father wouldn’t be able to let me go,” she said.

The episode was the most extreme among the families assembled for a bittersweet farewell party Tuesday in the New York headquarters of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which coordinates the program along with Israel’s Ministry of Education.

But many relatives in the room were riddled with ambivalence as they wrestled with potentially placing their child in terrorism’s path.

For the past 12 years, the Elite Academy has drawn 9,000 students from Latin America and the former Soviet Union to Israel’s top high schools. This year, the free program, which provides students with a stipend and health insurance, expanded to 32 countries — including the United States and Canada — after a request from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Between 40 and 50 North Americans applied for the spots, and five Americans were accepted after psychological and academic screening, said Michael Landsberg, executive director of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s aliyah department for North America.

“For each of you, this is the most important step of your life,” Landsberg told the group. To ease their concerns, he added, “We understand, for you parents, this is the most important treasure that you have.”

Still, amid the pride of joining the exclusive program, most of the families seemed torn about the decision to send a child to Israel.

Security concerns and trepidation over his daughter framed the face of Yaacov Allouche of Miami, though he nonetheless supports 15-year-old Regina’s participation.

It’s a “hard decision to take,” he said, “my daughter being away from us, first of all.”

Allouche said he fears for her safety in Israel but added, “There’s not much you can do about that, I guess.”

Regina — with tousled hair tacked atop her head, orange high tops and a denim bag bedecked with buttons boasting youthful emblems like “Dork!” — is not worried.

“I just think that if it’s my time to die, then it’s my time to die,” the teenager said.

She sais she just loves Israel, having spent the summer with a 21-year old cousin there. “I love being around my own people.”

For Regina, the Jewishness of life in Israel makes her feel less awkward.

When she goes grocery shopping with her mother at the local Publix supermarket, it’s “all weird” to check for kosher items for their modern Orthodox family, she said.

In Israel, “you can just ask, ‘Is this kosher?’ and you don’t have to feel stupid,” she said.

Parent Aaron Tokar was drawn to the Elite program, which he discovered at a Brooklyn fair for new immigrants, because of troubles with his teenaged son, David.

“I don’t know whose influence it was, but he wasn’t studying hard enough,” said Tokar, who emigrated from Odessa in 1976, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union. “I thought maybe being self-reliant will keep him studying.”

In addition, he said, the program will give David, 15, a Jewish education not available in Brooklyn public schools.

Being “independent and stuff” is “what made me want to go,” said David, a pale thin redhead in hip-hop gear: low- slung jeans, Nikes and a heavy chain necklace.

“Only the good students make it” at his high school, said David, who admits that he cuts class sometimes. He says he hopes for a fresh start in Israel – – but making friends is his chief concern.

“That’s the hardest part,” he said.

Meanwhile, his grandmother Elizabeth Kapilevich, bemoaned the move. “My heart is broken,” she said. “What can I do?”

She worries for David’s safety amid the threat of terrorism — and she will miss him. Of her seven grandchildren in America, Kapilevich said, David “is the best for me.” She said he visits each Saturday — “like a son.”

But for the modern Orthodox Piha family of New Rochelle, the Elite program is a unifier: It will bring Eitan to Israel as his parents prepare for aliyah.

Eitan, 15, has visited only Israel once — for a monthlong vacation with his family six summers ago — but said he “always wanted to go to Israel.”

Asked if he has any concerns about the program, he shrugs the question off.

“I mean it’s just like camp, but longer,” he said. Besides, he added, “I’ll probably stay there.”

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