329 North Americans arrive to start new lives in Israel

Despite the security situation and Israel's economic crisis, Ben-Gurion International Airport hosted a jubilant and emotional welcome ceremony yesterday morning for 329 American and Canadian Jews who arrived to start new lives in the country. The special El Al flight, bringing the largest single wave of North American Jews in twenty-five years, was organized by a Florida-based organization called Nefesh B'Nefesh (Jewish Souls United), which defines itself as a group dedicated to the revitalization of North American immigration to Israel.

"We could have lived a cushy life, but that's not important," said Tamar Rudy, a 27-year-old mother of four who left a legal assistant's job in Baltimore. "Raising our kids here is important."

Rudy moved to Israel with her husband Mitch, who just finished dental school, so that their children could be closer to their Jewish identity. "When I'm here, I feel like it's where I belong," she said.

The new immigrants included 103 families, mostly young ones, with a total of 150 children. The special program, which will eventually total 531 Jewish immigrants who will be absorbed mainly in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and Raanana, was co-sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the Jewish Agency, and the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption

Nefesh B'Nefesh was the brainchild of Rabbi Joshua Fass, who formed the group after the death of his 14-year-old Israeli cousin in a terrorist bombing inspired him to make the move to Israel. Fass's vision is to mobilize and enable hundreds of North American families to immigrate to Israel, serving as an expression of solidarity between American Jewry and Israel, and ultimately as a springboard to rehabilitate North American Aliyah.

Working in conjunction with the Jewish Agency and the Absorption Ministry, Nefesh B'Nefesh offers one-time grants of $5,000 to $25,000 to each new arrival or family, financed by private donors. The International Fellowship of Christian and Jews gave Fass's group a $2 million grant. Some of the grants were donated by American Evangelical Christians, who want to encourage Jews to live in the Holy Land, which they see as foretold by the Bible. Former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu played a key role in setting up the financial backing.

Fass said that the arrival of the North American immigrants should be seen by Israeli society as "a passionate and palpable expression of solidarity. We come from over 20 states as a common people, with a common goal, to share our lives with yours."

Fass and Nefesh B'Nefesh co-founder, Tony Gelbart, hope that the American immigrants will change the international perception of Israel as more than just a safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution. "We are not running from discontent. We choose Israel; it is the soul of the Jewish people. Our fate, past and future, is bound to this land," Gelbart said. "The world must know that no amount of pressure and no amount of terror will ever keep Jews from choosing Israel as their homeland."

Netanyahu, MK Yuli Edelstein (Yisrael Ba'aliya) and El Al CEO Amos Shapira were among the crowd of dignitaries and supporters who welcomed the new immigrants yesterday. "The war of terror is still with us. But what we are doing here today is the strongest, boldest and most endearing answer to those who want to drive us out of here," Netanyahu said.

"The Jewish community in the U.S. is the largest in the world and therefore from a strategic point of view, it is the great potential reservoir in the world for immigration," Jewish Agency Chairman Sallai Meridor told the Jerusalem Post. The Jewish Agency has long been looking into methods of promoting North American immigration. The formula presented by Nefesh B'Nefesh proves that once financial restraints are lifted, many North Americans will consider coming.

Fass hopes to continue to sponsor flights on a quarterly basis, and to dramatically alter the demographics of North American immigration. "This is the first flight of many to follow," he promised.

Last year only 1,378 immigrants arrived in Israel from North America. Including yesterday's arrivals, 1,000 have already arrived this year. Fass said that he has plans to bring an additional 130 families later this summer and has 400 families signed up for the summer of 2003.

Immigrants provided smooth landing in Israel Nefesh B'Nefesh plans to offer a strong net of support services to the new immigrants, to ensure that their absorption into Israeli society will be successful. A branch of Nefesh B'Nefesh was opened in Jerusalem, offering assistance in housing and employment. The office also provides 12-hour hotline and psychiatric support, and will match the immigrants with employment mentors and Israeli families, as well as hold seminars on issues like adjusting to a new school system and separation from friends and family.

Even the bureaucratic steps of 'making aliyah' were minimized as much as possible. The Interior Ministry dispatched officials who accompanied the group on their flight and processed new Israeli ID cards while in the air. Group members will receive all their immigration certificates and documents necessary for absorption almost immediately. The Absorption Ministry is also working with Nefesh B'Nefesh to speed up processing and assist in the absorption process.

The immigrants have not allowed the security or the financial situation to deter them from realizing their dream of living in Israel. Avi Rosenfeld, who arrived yesterday with his wife and three children, told Maariv, "It is scary to bring the children here. I am not stupid. But it is important to us that they are raised in Israel and are a part of the Jewish nation."

Shlomo Avazy from Florida added, "After September 11th, the same situation exists in America, so I'm not afraid to be in Israel. This is our place and this is where we are supposed to be."

The immigrants are comprised mostly of educated young adults, who speak Hebrew and have previously spent extended amounts of time in Israel, making them well positioned to contribute to Israeli society. They admit that the financial incentive provided by Nefesh B'Nefesh was the boost they needed to cement their decision to move. Shlomo Nissinbaum, a computer programmer from Brooklyn who arrived with his family yesterday, said, "My plan was to save money so that we would come with something in hand. But the money we received convinced us to make aliyah right now."

In response to concerns of family and friends regarding her move, Arlene Abrams from New York explained, "America is a wonderful country, but this is our homeland."

Debbie Berman Israelinsider

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