Among the 210 new immigrants who arrived in Israel on a Nefesh BNefesh charter flight Tuesday morning were Holocaust survivors Miriam and Itamar Pollak of New Haven, Connecticut, who decided to make aliyah at the age of 71 and 78, respectively.
Its been our lifelong dream to make aliyah, said Miriam, a metal sculptor who studied at Jerusalems Bezalel Academy of Art and Design between the years 1956 and 1959.
During the war her family managed to escape the Nazis by using false Aryan documentation and then fled communist Hungary in 1949 on top of a train.
Itamar, a retired chemistry professor and the eldest oleh of the group, was taken along with his entire family to Auschwitz, where his mother, three sisters and grandparents met their death.
Three of the couples children reside in the US, but Itamar said he hoped they would also ultimately make aliyah.
The familys eldest daughter lives in the West Bank settlement of Yakir.
'Ive always felt a really strong connection to Israel'
The couple said last years war against Hizbullah and the looming Iranian nuclear threat only encouraged them to follow through on their decision to make the move.
The more Jews that are living in Israel the better it is for the country, Itamar said.
Seventy-one-year-old George Gluck and his wife Ellen (66) of Woodmere, New York, who survived the Holocaust as well, said the conflict in the North did not cause them to reconsider their aliyah plans.
We feel safer in Israel, Ellen said.
During the pre-flight ceremony, before the new olim said their goodbyes to friends and relatives and headed toward the El Al terminal, Nefesh BNefesh founder Rabbi Yehoshua Fass said, We need to pause and reflect, and think that for centuries, how many hundreds of thousands - how many millions of individuals longed for and dreamt of this moment and were denied of this concept of aliyah, and that you, within 10-11 hours, will be making aliyah.
This is an incredible zchut (privilege) and an incredible wonder, he said.
Co-founder Tony Gelbart told the olim that there was a fight among Israeli politicians over who would be invited to greet them at Ben Gurion Airport, while former ambassador to the US and Nefesh B'Nefesh co-chairman Danny Ayalon added that the pride and excitement that you feel now are nothing compared to what youll feel when you get there (Israel).
Among those aboard the flight to Israel were 26 members of Tzofim Garin Tzabar, a group of young Jews aged 18 -21 who decided to make aliyah and join the Israel Defense Forces. Prior to their enlistment into the army in November, the members will live and work for three months at Kibbutz Maoz Haim, located near Bet She'an.
According to Nefesh BNefesh, 15 people who immigrated to Israel with the organizations help this summer have joined elite IDF units.
Im trying out for Tzanhanim (Paratroopers Brigade), but if it doesnt work out Ill probably go for Golani or Givati, or maybe Shiryon (Armored Corps), 18-year-old Jonathan Asael Kukawka said. But in any case I want to go to kravi (combat service).
The conflict in the North only helped me reach my decision to join the IDF, he said. Ive always felt a really strong connection to Israel, even though Ive always lived here (US); it (the war against Hizbullah) moved me to fight for my country.
I have many younger cousins in Israel, and I dont think they should grow up with that fear of constantly being attacked; this is the most direct way that I can help protect my country, Kukawka said.
During a special conference call held at the El Al lounge prior to the flight, the Nefesh BNefesh co-chairman Ayalon told pro-Israel bloggers that the organization was unique in that for the first time since the (beginning of) Zionism I believe, we are dealing with aliyah from places that are well-to-do.
These are not olim who are fleeing insecurities; they are not looking for shelter or food, he said. They are coming to fulfill the dream.
According to Ayalon, Nefesh BNefesh has brought about 11,000 new immigrants to Israel over the past five years, and over 99% of them have stayed in the country. The organization said some 2,200 more North American and British Jews are expected to immigrate to Israel over the course of the summer on seven specially chartered planes and eight group flights on El Al.
Aliyah is not only the spiritual essence of Zionism, especially in these times, it is also the most important factor in securing the State of Israels existence and its future, Ayalon later told Ynetnews.
The high-profile activities of Zionist organizations like Nefesh B'Nefesh are easy to understand. They are worried about Jews losing the population race in the Zionist state. Already three years ago it was reported by BBC that "if the current population trends continue, it is estimated that Jews will be outnumbered by non-Jews in the territory that Israel controls within 10 to 15 years."
But winning the population battle is proving impossibly difficult - particularly when more Jews are leaving Israel than moving in. Official Israeli sources contain no consistent, annual information about rates of emigration from the country or profiles of those leaving. Known within the Zionist ideological lexicon as yeridah, government statisticians do not even use the "e" word.
But in a presentation at the Association for Israel Studies in Jerusalem, Ian Lustick of Pennsylvania University has described as much as it is possible to know about emigration - given the lack of official data. "It is quite likely that the real net immigration of Jews into Israel in 2002 was either near zero or negative," he said. And the figures are not likely to change. With fewer than 22,000 immigrants registered for 2003, Lustick also believed only around 30% of these immigrants were classified by the government as Jewish.
The head of manpower for the Israel Defence Forces reported in mid-2003 that 34% of Israelis of conscription age were not serving in the army - a significant number of whom had "left the country prior to their recruitment and lived abroad".
In Haaretz, journalist Aluf Benn reported sharp increases in Israelis applying for citizenship papers at the German, Polish, Czech, Austrian and Slovakian embassies in Israel in 2002 and 2003.
Even a Market Watch poll commissioned by the newspaper Maariv found 20% of adult Israelis had recently considered living in a different country, and more than half of these "would like their children to grow up outside Israel".
In November 2003, Haaretz published a lengthy interview with Avraham Burg, the former speaker of the Knesset. The son of Interior Minister Yosef Burg, Avraham, had shocked many Israelis with an article he published in the International Herald Tribune entitled A Failed Israeli Society is Collapsing.
"When you ask Israelis today whether their children will be living here 25 years down the road, you don't get an unequivocally positive answer.
"You don't hear a booming yes. On the contrary. Young people are being encouraged to study abroad. Their parents are getting them European passports ... a whole society is living here that has no faith in its future.
Even Tel Aviv estimates that "Israeli citizens living outside the country" - that is, emigrants - now number between 450,000 and 900,000, depending on whether you count children born outside the country.
According to representatives of the Central Bureau of Statistics testifying before the Knesset's Committee on Absorption, 270,000 Israeli citizens emigrated between 1990 and 2001.
In other words, a third of all immigrants in the same period have returned home.