Over 200 American and Canadians touched down at Ben Gurion Airport Wednesday morning to an uproarious welcome as they became the country’s newest new immigrants.
As singles, families, couples young and old and some 40 future lone soldiers disembarked from the plane just after 6 a.m., they were welcomed by hundreds of people — friends, family and other well-wishers — who waved Israeli flags and sang to them on the airport tarmac.
A group of Israel Defense Forces soldiers were there as well, flanking the procession of 242 new arrivals on both sides as an honor guard of sorts, singing and cheering them on, as is standard for mass flights of immigrants.
The immigrants arrived on a special El Al flight chartered by Nefesh B’Nefesh, a non-profit organization that has in recent years become the sole mediator of North American aliyah. (A Times of Israel staff writer joined the flight as a guest of the organization.)
Nefesh B’Nefesh has been working since 2002 to encourage immigration to the Jewish state. It aims to make the process as streamlined and painless as possible, helping immigrants navigate the sometimes-Byzantine Israeli bureaucracy, aiding them in finding housing and employment as well as building a social support structure.
It works with immigrants who arrive independently as well as those who come on the occasional celebratory chartered plane and group flights.
Wednesday marked the organization’s 60th charter flight.
Some 2,000 North Americans were expected to immigrate to Israel this summer with the group’s help, pushing it past the 60,000 mark according to Nefesh’s estimation, though it is not clear how many of that number remain in Israel. The group claims a 90 percent retention rate over time.
“Each and every oleh [immigrant] brings a world of their own to Israel, culturally, ideologically and professionally as they strengthen the Jewish nation,” said Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, co-founder and executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh, using the Hebrew word for an immigrant to Israel.
“As we celebrate our 60,000th oleh today, we reflect upon how, Nefesh B’Nefesh, as an institution, has been privileged to not only help tens of thousands of Jews fulfill their aliyah dreams, but has also contributed to building and developing the State of Israel through these olim,” he added.
Absorption Minister Yoav Gallant, on hand to greet the new arrivals, said the past year had seen a 21% uptick in Jewish immigration, with over 20,000 new Israelis.
“This is a strategic goal of the Israeli government that has contributed to the strengthening of the nation and the Jewish people,” he said.
Also at the ceremony were Sara Netanyahu, wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Jewish Agency head Isaac Herzog.
Haim Bibas, chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel and mayor of Modi’in-Maccabim-Reut, praised the immigrants for the “sacrifices” involved in moving across the world.
“You have left families. You left friends, jobs and schools. By coming here, you are investing in the future: your future, your children’s future, and the future of the Jewish people,” he said. “We have been waiting and preparing for you, and the local government will make sure your new life here in Israel will be meaningful.”