More than 500 North American Jews arrived in Israel on Wednesday on two chartered flights from New York and Toronto, representing the largest number of Americans and Canadians to immigrate to Israel in a single day.
Despite Tuesday's suicide bombing in Netanya and the escalating political tension as the disengagement nears, the immigrants were in high spirits, many explaining that while they are concerned about security, they prefer to live in the Jewish state than in the Diaspora.
"I am afraid, but my desire to live in Israel is the strongest desire I have, and it overpowers all of my other fears," said Marni Urman from Canada. "This is where I belong."
The immigrants, who arrived in Israel as part of a joint initiative of aliyah assistance program Nefesh B'Nefesh and the Jewish Agency, are the first of some 3,200 North American Jews scheduled to arrive in Israel this summer.
"I'm really very happy to be here. Every night for the past five years I've read the news in Israel, and I feel as though I've been here the whole time," said Avner Cohen, who arrived from Puerto Rico via New York.
Amid cheers from friends, relatives and Israel Defense Forces troops waving flags, the jet-lagged immigrants touched down to a festive welcoming ceremony featuring Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Jewish Agency chairman Zeev Bielski.
"Aliyah is the primary goal of our government, the future of our great people," Sharon said. "Life in Israel is not always easy, but I promise you we'll do all we can to assist you on your journey home."
"We need you more than ever - come to Israel, we need you here," he said. "Welcome home, to the Holy Land."
Shalom praised the immigrants' decision to leave the comforts of North America to move to Israel. "Israel is the land of milk and honey, but it is far from being the Garden of Eden," the foreign minister said. "Yet you still decided to make aliyah. Others would call you crazy - I call you Zionists."
By the end of the year, the number of North Americans immigrants assisted by Nefesh B'Nefesh since its establishment in 2001 is projected to rise sixfold.
"The six planes this summer are just a dry run for the 10 we'll be bringing next year," said Danny Oberman of Nefesh B'Nefesh.