David and Ellen Epstein and three of their five children sat last night in front of the television set in their Chevy Chase basement, chewing their nails as contradictory news came in.

How many missiles had hit Israel? And where had they hit? Were they chemical weapons?

When the war started Wednesday, the Epsteins had hung an American flag outside their home, but last night, this Jewish family had more personal concerns.

For Barak Epstein, 14, news of the Scud missile attacks punctured the euphoria of winning a basketball game and set him wondering about his close friend, Idan, who lives in Israel.

Barak said he would wait until today to call. "If people are sealed up in their rooms {in case of chemical weapons}, you don't want to call them," he said.

Although reports that chemical weapons had been used turned out to be unfounded, the Epsteins, who attend an orthodox syngogue in Georgetown, couldn't help worrying.

"For a Jew, the idea of gas sets off such resonances," said David Epstein, a lawyer.

So did President Bush's statements comparing Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler, said Ellen Epstein, an oral historian. "If Hitler had been stopped in 1938 . . . ." she said, her voice trailing off. "It's not just a Jewish problem . . . . It's a fight about who controls the world, about tyranny."

To David Epstein, there is a vast difference between attacking military targets and firing missiles at cities. "Pilots take certain risks, but families and children in their homes aren't supposed to be at risk," he said. "When it hits Israel, it's getting into your home.

The family has visited Israel several times, and the Epsteins' oldest son, Jeremy, is scheduled to leave Feb. 10 for Israel for a four-month visit. So far, Ellen Epstein said, the trip is still on.

Although they say they care deeply about Israel, the Epsteins, like most of the 160,000 Jews in the Washington area, have no trouble with divided loyalties. America comes first, they said.

"I support the U.S. when they asked Israel not to retaliate," said Asher, 16. Because {Israeli} casualties have been low, it's better to let the United States handle it."

But when footage showed an American Patriot missile destroying an Iraqi Scud, Dina, 11, couldn't help asking "Dad, did we give Israel a Patriot air defense?"

Asked Ellen Epstein, "Is it reasonable to ask a country not to defend itself?"

The entire family hushed when the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Zalman Shoval, reported on the damage to Tel Aviv, and Asher expelled his breath when the diplomat announced that there had been no deaths.

David Epstein said the whole crisis has served to remind the familyjust how tenuous Israel's position is.

"The issue is not where the boundaries of Israel are going to be, but its very existence," he said.

"I hope this crisis shows America that {Israel} is such a tiny speck on the map," said Ellen Epstein.

Although the Epsteins are perhaps more aware than most Americans of Israel's difficulties, at bottom, their feelings about the war are the same.

Said Dina, "I'm scared . . . . I'm even scared here with the terrorists."