American, Canadian immigrants land in Israel

By Aaron Klein

A chartered jet yesterday brought nearly 400 new immigrants from the United States and Canada to Israel as part of an expanding program that has been attracting middle-class Jews from North America to counter recent low immigration trends.

The immigrants are among 1,500 from the United States and Canada – almost a third of them from New York State – who will be arriving this summer under the sponsorship of a private group, Nefesh B’Nefesh, or “soul to soul.”

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon personally greeted the new arrivals as they walked off the plane.

“Welcome to Israel,” Sharon said. “It was not an easy decision and you will face many challenges.”

Sharon said he aims for 1 million North American immigrants over the next decade.

Immigration, known in Hebrew as “aliya,” which boomed in the 1990s with some 1 million people arriving from the former Soviet Union, has declined by 50 percent since 2000 due in part to fears of terrorism and the decline of the Israeli economy.

North American Jews have traditionally migrated to Israel in small numbers, averaging about 3,000 to 5,000 annually for the past quarter-century, according to Israeli government figures.

Nefesh B’Nefesh is seeking to substantially raise these figures. In its first attempt, the group brought over 500 immigrants in the summer of 2002. More than 1,000 came last year, despite the ongoing Mideast violence and an Israel economy beginning to recover from a recession, and the program directors say several thousand have applied to immigrate this year.