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A Break From Israel's Day-to-Day Realities

The Jewish Center provides a trip -- with stops from the White House to Ojai -- for those touched by the violence at home.

December 11, 2003|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

The kids held out chunks of carrot and the horses gobbled them down: The scene at the Equine Sanctuary of Ojai on Wednesday could have been a snapshot from a suburban school's field trip instead of an afternoon's respite from a world of bomb blasts and shattered limbs.

But the two dozen young Israelis leaning on the show ring's fence and patting the horses' noses were all too familiar with terror. Some had survived terrorist attacks. Others had family members who did not.

All were part of a two-week U.S. tour organized by the Southern California Jewish Center, an educational group based in Los Angeles.

The point was to give the children and their families a break, as well as give Americans a sense of the brutal realities that color day-to-day life in Israel.

"The picture they have over there is that no one cares," said Vered Kashani, an organizer of the trip along with her husband, the center's director, Rabbi Shimon Kashani. "It's like the Holocaust, when the whole world looked the other way. That's how they feel now."

Since landing in New York last week, the group of 30 has visited ground zero, the Pentagon and the White House.

Over the last several days, they have covered Southern California with jaunts to Disneyland, shopping malls and day spas. They also rubbed shoulders with a host of Hollywood figures at a Tuesday night fund-raising gala for the center.

"We just wanted to give them a good time," Vered Kashani said.

They have been through times that were anything but.

There was the young girl who was severely burned in a 2002 terrorist attack on a hotel in Kenya frequented by Israelis. Fire engulfed her as she tried to drag her mother's flaming body to a swimming pool.

There was the 14-year-old boy with permanent brain damage from rocks hurled at him on the street.

There was Leor Thaler, who looks not unlike many other Israeli 16-year-olds, with his tongue ring, red camouflage pants, and a splash of red dye in his hair. Inside, he still carries a hunk of shrapnel and a few steel nails.

On a warm February evening in 2002, Leor and his sister, Rachel, went out for pizza with friends at a shopping center a few blocks from their West Bank home.

A suicide bomber strode over to their table and blew himself up, killing Rachel, then 16, and two other teenagers, including Leor's best friend.

"I have lots of friends who are injured, and stuff like that. Three kids from my school were killed," he said. "In Israel, we get used to it."

The four permanent residents at the sanctuary are elderly ex-polo ponies and an old show horse.

Alexis Ells, the facility's founder, said they had been severely disabled and would probably have been put to death had she not taken them in.

With care, the horses have come around -- as did Ells, after a car crash years ago that left her all but dead.

"I'm hoping that when the kids hear my story and the horses' stories, that in some quiet place of their spirit they'll receive a little, tiny piece of hope," she said.

But for many of the visitors, the stories of one another were the trip's centerpiece.

"At first, the kids don't want to talk about it," said Vered Kashani. "But eventually it comes up and they won't stop."

Their experiences have a dark resonance for her. In 2002, as she was putting together the center's first tour for Israeli survivors, she received a phone call: Gunmen dressed as Israeli soldiers had sprayed bullets through a bus, killing her aunt, her cousin, her cousin's husband and the couple's 8-month-old baby.

With terror as a constant backdrop in Israel, some of the visitors savored their trip to the U.S. But they didn't see permanently leaving Israel as an option.

Ginette Thaler, Leor's mother, said the places she knows and the routine she follows comfort her. And her daughter Rachel's presence lingers.

"I couldn't leave," she said. "Rachel's friends drop by all the time. I can drive down streets where she used to call out to her friends from the car. I can look across to a window she once broke with a ball. I need to have the feeling of her around me."

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