400 U.S. Jews make aliyah on single day

The nearly 400 passengers marked the largest number of North Americans to arrive at one time in 25 years.

Tired from the long trip, which was funded by a $2 million grant from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Fass looked out at the hundreds of people holding Israeli flags and singing "hevenu shalom aleichem" in the nearby hangar.

Many journalists and politicians waited at the bottom of the airplane steps. Behind them, Fass' father was waving and shouting his name.

Fass said his first thought was, "My journey is just beginning." His wife, Batsheva, said "it felt like coming home, with a lot of people to greet you."

As the co-founder of the program Nefesh b'Nefesh, which brought the immigrants to Israel, Fass spoke to fellow passengers and hundreds of their friends at a ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport.

Their arrival, Fass said, should be viewed by Israelis 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."

He hopes the world pays attention to the arrival of the North Americans and understands that Israel is not just a haven for those 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." Florida businessman and program co-founder Tony 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."

Fass said he hopes diaspora Jews will see how much they are like the families who just arrived, and realize that they can do it too.

"This is the first flight of many to follow," Fass said. He plans to bring at least four planeloads a year and vastly increase the number of North Americans who immigrate to Israel.

Last year, 1,378 came. With yesterday's flight, the number this year is already at 1,000. Fass said he has 400 families signed up to come next summer. A total of 103 families came on yesterday's flight, bringing 150 children. Another 130 North American immigrants are expected later this summer.

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 and the International Fellowship of Christian and Jews.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the group's president, said, "The Christians of America have helped sponsor your stay and that of 200,000 other Jews because they believe in the state of Israel and want to bless the Jewish people."

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is helping out with the program, said that he once stood in a similar airplane hangar ready to storm a hijacked plane.

"Thirty years later, the war against terror is still with us. But what you are doing today is the strongest and boldest and most endearing answer to those who want to drive us from our homeland," he said.

Deputy Absorption Minister Yuli Edelstein said that 15 years ago, on July 9, 1987, at the same time of day, he was leaving Moscow on his way to Israel after years as a refusenik.

"For me, it was a simple decision, it was a world of black and white. The only way for us to be Jews and Zionist was to move to Israel."

He recalled two visitors from Philadelphia who came to his home in the early 1980s, before he left Russia. He wondered at the time, if he had lived in Philadelphia as they did, would he still long to go to Israel?

"Some 20 years later, your presence here gives me an answer to that question. If you really love this country, if you really are Jewish and Zionist, you do the right thing," Edelstein said.

"You who arrive on this first plane have a responsibility to succeed; what happens to you will impact the decision of others."

Member of Knesset Zvi Hendel, who heads the Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee, said there are those who say maybe we do not need Americans. "I came to tell you, we need you here in Israel more than in any other place… we love you very much."

Fass said his dream is that in the future there will be no fanfare accompanying such planes because their arrival will be considered an everyday occurrence.

The new immigrants said they were moved and surprised by the reception. But the most emotional moment was after the speeches, when everyone stood to sing the national anthem.

New immigrant Noa Hirsch was among many who burst into tears when singing "Hatikvah."

"I always sang it with the hope that I would be here, now I am," Hirsch said.