A scene from the celebration last week at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv as 330 North American immigrants arrive.Among the 330 North American immigrants who immigrated en masse in Israel last week, nobody had a more interesting welcome than Sinai and Anna Julian and their four children. An Israeli Bedouin named Yunis Abu-Hamad waited excitedly for them at Ben-Gurion Airport and prepared to bring them to his home in the Negev.
Abu-Hamad met the Julians from New York more than a decade ago when the young American Orthodox Jewish couple visited Israel and he was their tour guide. They became fast friends, and kept in contact throughout the years.
Now, he has committed to offering them his hospitality as they settle into life in Israel. He said that he has turned his home, located in a village near the southern city of Arad, into an ‘absorption center’ for them.
“I’ve organized a kosher kitchen for them,” he proudly told reporters. “On Shabbat I will bring them challah and wine, and they can cook there and prepare everything in a way that is proper for them religiously. They will stay with me until they find themselves a proper long-term living arrangement.”
Anna Julian said that the strong connection to their Bedouin friend played a role in their decision to make their move. “It took a Bedouin asking me what were we doing in New York that gave me the courage to take the step that I had always dreamed of and moved to Israel.”
The Julians, along with the other immigrants, were greeted ceremoniously at the airport by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and other government officials during a welcoming ceremony at an El Al hangar decorated with Israeli flags, balloons and flowers.
Sharon began by welcoming the new olim “to the homeland of the Jews for 4,000 years,” and reminded them that, while Israel is “not always an easy place, it’s ours.”
The El Al flight was chartered by a private organization, Nefesh B’Nefesh (Soul to Soul) in cooperation with the Jewish Agency. Created to revitalize Jewish immigration from North America by removing logistical and economic hurdles, Nefesh B’Nefesh plans to bring nearly 1,000 new immigrants to Israel this year, topping the 519 they ushered in last year. Among the group last week were secular and religious Jews, young singles and grandparents, newlyweds and parents of 10.
Rabbi Joshua Fass, who started Nefesh B’Nefesh after his cousin was killed in a terror attack and who immigrated with last year’s group, stressed that now is the time to spur voluntary immigration based on idealism rather than the refuge-seeking.
“Our olim are making history,” Fass told The Jerusalem Post. “They aren’t fleeing adversity or anti-Semitism. They are idealistically, consciously realizing their dream to make their lives in Israel and to contribute economically, socially and
culturally to this country.”
Nefesh B’Nefesh claims they’ve found a way to tap in to the vast number of North American Jews, many of whom would emigrate if the funds were available. “We didn’t advertise our services at all and still we had to turn down
hundreds of people this year just because we didn’t have the dollars,” Fass said.
“We’ve challenged the Israeli government. We believe we can bring 100,000 North American Jews to Israel in the next five years. We just need the funding.”
Aside from helping the new immigrants settle affairs, such as college loans and other debts in the United States, co-founder Tony Gelbart said Nefesh B’Nefesh also “provides assistance in finding employment and housing,” and comes
with a built-in support system for aiding in social integration and navigating government processes upon arrival in Israel.
Gelbart, a Florida businessman who landed in Israel with the immigrants yesterday and has provided significant funding since the organization was founded, said “The Prime Minister [Sharon] is calling for the immigration of one million olim. Where are they going to come from? There’s nothing wrong with aliyah from Argentina, France, Russia and Ethiopia, but American and Canadian olim are making aliyah by choice, not because they are being forced to do it [due to distress] but because they want to. They just need a bit of help.”
Among the other arrivals last week from the US were Binyamin Katzman and Tamar Oser, who were celebrating their first week of marriage.
“Everyone tells you you’re stupid, how can you be doing this. Then you get on the plane and see everyone else doing it,” Oser, 22 told the Post.
Michael Landsberg, head of the Jewish Agency´s immigration department in North America believes most of the new immigrants made up their minds to go to Israel, telling Ha’aretz “not in spite of the terrorist attack but because they feel a special commitment to Israel at a time like this.” Landsberg said this commitment “is the motive and the explanation for the 20 percent increase in immigration from North America this year.”
By the end of July 1,200 people will have immigrated to Israel compared to 900 this time last year. Landsberg said the number of immigrants from North America will reach 2,400 by the end of the year, compared to 2,040 in 2002.