It's just before 8:30 a.m., and the sound of a shofar blasts through the bustle on the tarmac of Ben Gurion Airport. In front of the cavernous hangar, which is set up for a party, a band plays "Heivenu Shalom Aleichem." Two rows of mostly female soldiers flank the walkway, and hundreds of people wave Israeli flags and hold signs saying things like, "Welcome Home."
It's a perfect day to move to Israel.
Arriving any minute now will be a mass immigration of sorts, as three planes from Toronto, New York and Great Britain bring more than 500 people to live in Israel. This whole party, and the immigration, are courtesy of Nefesh B'Nefesh (NBN), an American organization that helps people deal with the challenges of aliyah -- moving to Israel. While immigration to Israel is not new, and neither is the organization, with today's flights NBN will have brought 10,000 immigrants to Israel since its inception in 2002.
As it happens, these flights also are arriving just days after a cease-fire was achieved in the summer's fight against Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hence, the fanfare has become even more festive, with NBN's usual live music, flags, clowns, balloons and food, as well as a ceremony where NBN officials will speak, and high-ranking government officers, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, will use the moment to highlight how terrorist attacks have not deterred immigration.
Portable stairs are rolled over to the El Al planes so that people can land in Israel the old-fashioned way -- stepping out immediately into the Tel Aviv air, kissing the ground if they like -- instead of going straight into the new Ben Gurion terminal directly from the plane, as happens at most international airports.
Adina and Amichai Strasberg are draped in an Israeli flag as they make their way down the stairs, and they break into a run when they see Amichai's sister on the tarmac, embracing her in a jumpy, screaming hug. The couple, both 20, have dreamed of moving to Israel their whole life and started planning it with NBN last year when they got engaged.
As the Strasbergs stop jumping, they look around.
"We're not American tourists, we're not on a student visa, we're full-fledged Israelis," Amichai says.
His wife adds, "It's amazing. We're finally home."
Evan Goldstein, 27, says that the moment the plane doors opened, he breathed a sigh of relief. Coming from Walnut Creek, Calif., he was nervous about making aliyah, he said, but when he stepped off the plane, "everything clicked."
He's wearing a blue button-down shirt and a big crocheted kippah, and he already looks Israeli -- well, like an American Israeli from Jerusalem, where he plans to live "in the middle of things."
Goldstein's known for years that he wanted to move here, he says: "It's a Jewish country, and the Jewish future is here, and my future is here."
He started the process with NBN only last November, getting help with paperwork, as well as many other details, including this flight.
NBN seems to have bred a different type of oleh -- people under 40, who often are single or starting families, who are professionally ambitious and interested in a quality lifestyle and not just focused on Israel under any circumstances. Once, aliyah was a move only for the intrepid; only the most idealistic or the bravest could face the trans-Atlantic move to a foreign country. Moving to Israel wasn't just a difficult move, it also meant coping with a complex and often random Israeli bureaucracy, whose laws were often changing regarding who is a Jew, what constitutes a legal marriage and what the foreign tax laws are, among other challenges.
Aliyah also used to be primarily for the wealthy, because moving a family and household was costly, and business opportunities in Israel were hard to come by. In its market research, NBN found that "one-time expenses incurred by olim when moving to Israel were, in many cases, a significant reason for North American Jews to delay aliyah." As a result, most young people and new families delayed making aliyah, ultimately hurting the chances of it happening at all.
By streamlining the bureaucracy, helping new olim find jobs, assisting them financially with grants from $5,000 to $20,000 and following through on their aliyah process, NBN claims it has only a 1 percent failure rate among the 10,000 people it has brought to Israel, although since that the program has only a four-year history, it might be too soon to judge.
The organization was founded by Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, now the group's executive director, who previously served as a teacher and associate rabbi at an Orthodox synagogue in Boca Raton, Fla., among other duties. After an Israeli relative was killed in a terrorist bombing, Fass joined with Tony B. Gelbart, a businessman and philanthropist and now the group's chairman, to found Nefesh B'Nefesh. Since 2005, they have worked with the Jewish Agency for Israel, whose job is to promote immigration, but NBN's success is an example of how American know-how and philanthropy can help improve upon the old Israeli way.
Efficiency is one of NBN's strengths -- helping one Encino family of five, the Posens, make aliyah in just three months. The Posens were one of 25 Californians arriving on the flights that day.
"We just decided in June, and we made it here now," says Jennifer Posen. Her eldest, Sasha, who attended Emek Hebrew Academy, was turning 10, and the family decided "it was time."
Jennifer and her husband, Steven, had always dreamed of moving to Israel. "We got married 13 years ago in Jerusalem with the intention of making aliyah, and it just took us a little longer than expected," she says. Steven will run his business from Israel, Beit Shemesh, where they will live.
Like Steven Posen, many new immigrants make the move possible by continuing to run their businesses from Israel; others, like Goldstein, who is a mechanical engineer, telecommute. About 70 percent of NBN immigrants are religious.
But there are others, like Ben Frimmer, who just likes Israel's lifestyle.
"My friends always said I'd fit in better here," says Frimmer, a 26-year-old from San Diego. "I like to party, to hang out, to listen to loud music, to stay up late. I like to relax, to sit outside, to read; I don't care about what car I drive."
Frimmer is a musician, who came to Israel with the Birthright program in January. He stayed for two months and then decided to relocate permanently.
There are all types of people swarming around the hangar on this mid-August morning at Ben Gurion Airport -- smiling and dazed new immigrants wear "Oleh" stickers; young kids are holding teddy bears and miniature suitcases; families and friends have come to greet them -- grandparents, children, sisters and brothers are being reunited.
It's an emotional moment even for the officials, fresh from the war. "Wow! Three planes, three countries, one homeland, can it get better than that?" says NBN founder Gelbart. He promises that next time, there will be "four planes landing together," and that the following year, they will bring 10,000 new immigrants.
"Today you're capturing the hearts of all our friends and destroying the aspirations of all your enemies," he says in his address to the group. Olmert, welcoming the new olim, also refers to the recent crisis and the support the world gave Israel.
"The last few weeks have not been easy," he said, "but there is no support that is stronger, more meaningful and more significant than that of the Jewish people throughout the world. There is no stronger statement of trust in the future of the state of Israel than your decision today to come live here."
When 500 people move to Israel, it shows the world "we are afraid of no one," and "we trust in the State of Israel."
To the immigrants he says, "We are not an easy country to live in -- and if you don't know that, you'll know that soon. But this is our only home."
It was nearing noon by the time the ceremonies ended, and the olim parted with their families and friends, returning to the main terminal to collect their luggage, pass through customs and make their way to their new homes. By now, many appeared hot, sweaty and tired, showing the effects of a long day of traveling. People crowded on the tarmac, pushing onto the buses, as the NBN workers directed them, helping them to find their way. But still, the excitement hadn't worn off.
"That's the thing about aliyah," Goldstein says. "Once you get it in your head, you can't get it out. It ruins your whole life."