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Welcoming New Israelis
Looking to the future: New Immigrants Zev & Ariella Iversen
by Judy Lash Balint
Israel Insider
July 9, 2003

They stepped off the plane carrying stuffed animals, live animals, and even a sefer Torah. The 330 new immigrants from the US and Canada who arrived on a charter flight from New York today are part of the new American aliya movement that's bringing hundreds of North American Jews home.

In an effort that is entirely privately funded, the Nefesh B'Nefesh organization has succeeded where official Israeli efforts to encourage Western aliya have consistently failed. Today's flight, chartered by the Jewish Agency, brings the number of American olim to almost 1,000 in the past year, with another flight bringing an additional 350 people set to arrive on July 22.

The key element encouraging this new wave of immigrants is financial assistance. Grants of anywhere between $7-18,000 per family are available from Nefesh B'Nefesh if the family stays in Israel for at least three years. After they get here, an agressive employment counselor is available, as well as match-ups with veteran olim and assistance dealing with immigration bureacracy.

"Without Nefesh B'Nefesh I would have had to work another few years to get enough money together to make the move," says Moshe Gruss, 26, from New Jersey. Moshe, young, single and observant, plans on attending ulpan while studying in yeshiva and then joining the IDF.

A crowd of several hundred Israeli-Americans was on hand in the El Al hangar at Ben Gurion airport this morning to greet the newcomers. For many, it was a chance to relive their own aliya experience. "We didn't get this kind of hoopla when we arrived," said Dvora Kaplan who arrived in 1996, "but it's just great to see people coming even with today's horrible security and economic conditions," she added, as her eyes scanned the disembarking passengers for her niece from Boston.

The plane pulled up directly to the hangar with the normally tedious passport control and other immigration processing having taken place during the flight.

Flag-waving El Al employees lined the walkway leading into the hangar, and a swarm of media descended on the new Israelis. There were some great shots--one youngish mother knelt down to kiss the ground with tears in her eyes: one Haredi family couldn't quite keep track of their eight children and had to stop for an impromptu count; Chaim, a sofer (Torah scribe) from Brooklyn held a sefer Torah wrapped in a prayer shawl as he carefully descended the stairs from the plane.

The super secular Israeli film crews recording the event couldn't have looked more different than the largely observant immigrants they were filming.

But as the new olim took their seats in the hangar, they were indistinguishable from the hundreds of more veteran immigrants who had come to greet them. Slightly younger, perhaps, but the same kind of people. Overwhelmingly modern orthodox with a smattering of Conservative and Haredim. One Nefesh B'Nefesh worker told me there was only one secular family in the group.

Around half of the olim are children, small children. There are hardly any families with teenage kids in the group--a testament to the notoriously difficult absorption of teenagers into Israeli high school society.

Zev and Ariella Iverson chose to come before they had kids. Married for one year, the couple plans on living in Maale Adumim, just to the east of Jerusalem. Zev, born and raised in Kirkland, WA says he has several friends who have concrete plans to make aliya.

On hand to greet the new olim were Finance Minister Benyamin Netanyahu: Absorption Minister Tzippi Livni, Jewish Agency director Sallai Meridor and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Bibi spoke of his own grandfather who was one of the earliest immigrants from the US some 107 years ago. Netanyahu Sr. came to the US from Lithuania and then made aliya.

Tony Gelbart one of the co-founders of Nefesh B'Nefesh, urged the government to establish a Road Map for Aliya. "Israel needs to know it can be a magnet for US Jews," he declared. Strong aliya sends a message to our enemies too, he continued, and could go a long way in dealing with Israel's demographic challenges.

The family of Dr. Guy Mayer was called up to receive their first official documents as Israeli citizens. After thanking God, Nefesh B'Nefesh and the Jewish Agency, the father of four spoke one sentence:

"My father was a Holocaust survivor. Sixty years ago he wore a yellow star," Mayer said. "Now, I carry a tehudat zehut (identification card) in my homeland."

The Pirche Boys Choir from Efrat led the singing of Hatikva to close the ceremony. We all sang, the tears flowed, cameras rolled and the olim took a deep breath before dispersing to their new homes.