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Conflict Hits Home

Decision: Melissa Kahn must return to Israel to finish her studies, but the region's continued violence gives her pause.

April 05, 2002|KRISTINA SAUERWEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Medical student Melissa Kahn has two choices: Board a plane Saturday for Israel and live in fear she may not see her husband and toddler again. Or stay at her parents' Calabasas home and forfeit a pathology degree she is six weeks shy of earning at Tel Aviv University, through a New York school's study-abroad program.

As violence continues in the Middle East, major school systems nationwide, including the University of California, have urged their students in Israel to return home. Other study programs in the country have reported a drop in applications, and the U.S. State Department this week offered to evacuate diplomats' dependents.

Kahn, 28, said she wants to finish her graduation requirements in America, but Sackler School of Medicine in New York expects her to be in Tel Aviv by 8 a.m. Tuesday. "What if something happens to me? I have a daughter," said Kahn, sipping coffee at her parents' kitchen table on a weekday morning during her Passover vacation.

At first Kahn, a thin woman with a bouncing bob haircut, appeared calm, but as she reflected on her plight, her blue eyes teared up, and she began nervously swinging her right foot.

"I don't feel comfortable going back," said Kahn, who has heard bombs explode near her Tel Aviv apartment.

Marcia Warner, the executive director of the Sackler medical program, said the school tries to work with students, but generally they must follow curriculum guidelines to obtain a degree--and that means completing many of their requirements in Israel.

"Each student makes his own judgment," Warner said. "But we have certain standards."

Warner declined to comment on Kahn's situation without reviewing academic records and other materials. She also cited confidentiality issues.

Sackler officials said highly trained guards protect the Tel Aviv campus, and the university brings in experts to inform the faculty and students about the conflict. The officials said the violence has not spread to the campus.

The school issued a memo Thursday telling students it will reimburse them for using taxicabs, so they can avoid public transportation.

Kahn said the school should be more flexible with its U.S. students. She needs to finish two three-week hospital rotations for her degree and says she should be allowed to do so at a California institution.

She has discussed that possibility with doctors at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where she is to begin her residency on June 24. A hospital spokeswoman declined to comment without knowing specifics.

Rabbi Harvey J. Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple said he understands "the skittish feelings about going to a part of the world where there is a lot of danger." But he encourages Jews and non-Jews to visit Israel to show their support for the country.

"Exercise caution and good sense" by avoiding volatile areas such as the Gaza Strip and West Bank, said Fields, who recently returned from a two-week trip to Israel. "There is no reason not to go."

Kahn said she feels torn. "I have a deep love for the Jewish homeland," Kahn said. "It's a sacred place.... I would like to support Israel."

She paused and looked out the kitchen window at a jet flying above the San Fernando Valley. Her daughter Emma, who turns 2 in May, usually waves "bye-bye" at airplanes, knowing that her mother is scheduled to be on one soon.

"If I have to, I will get on that plane," Kahn said, sighing. "My husband and daughter can't come to Israel, because if something happened, 'Poof!' That would be the end of the Kahn family."

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