Two dozen immigrants from the East Coast of the United States landed on a special flight to Israel on Thursday afternoon as scheduled, the first organized group of immigrants to arrive in the country since the coronavirus outbreak began.
Meanwhile, though, a flight of 50 members of the Falashmura community in Ethiopia, which was scheduled to arrive in Israel on Wednesday night, was canceled at the last moment. According to sources connected to the community, passengers waiting for the flight were told they could not come to Israel because of the coronavirus scare.
They said, however, that a group of 73 members of the Falashmura community would be arriving in Israel next week and another bigger group after Passover next month.
The American flight was organized by Nefesh B’Nefesh, a group that handles immigration from the United States and Canada on behalf of the Israeli government. The immigrants include 10 families as well as singles – among them two sisters – ranging in age from 9 months to 73. They came from New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Nefesh B’Nefesh said in a statement that it was organizing flights for another 20 immigrants scheduled to arrive over the next two weeks. Immigrants approved by the Israeli government are eligible for free flights and other benefits.
“It is truly remarkable to see that aliyah is continuing amid increasingly complex global circumstances,” said Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, co-founder and executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh. “These new immigrants, more than ever, represent the strong future of the State of Israel as they are determined to fulfill their dreams of helping to build the Jewish nation.”
Like all Israelis returning to the country these days, the immigrants will be required to spend 14 days in quarantine to ensure they are not infected with the coronavirus. Nefesh B’Nefesh said it had set up a dedicated hotline to lend them any assistance they needed, including provisions during the isolation period.
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The immigrants who landed Thursday will be moving to cities around Israel including Jerusalem, Be’er Sheva, Holon, Modi’in, Ra’anana and Netanya. The group includes Aviva and Tzvi Karoly and their two young children, from Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood.
In a farewell letter to their Jewish community in Washington Heights, Aviva Karoly wrote: “When we first learned that we would likely be put in mandatory quarantine upon arrival, I was a bit freaked out. However, within minutes of my posting on a Facebook page for the community I was inundated with volunteers offering to bring us groceries, toys, books and anything else we might need. Complete strangers were literally lining up to help us. How amazing are the people of Modi’in, and we are so excited to be part of this community. There are literally piles of supplies stocked outside our door just waiting for us to come home.”
Three weeks before Israel’s last general election on March 2, the cabinet approved plans to bring 400 members of the Falashmura community to the country in the coming months. The Falashmura are descendants of the Ethiopian Jewish community who were forced to convert to Christianity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many members of the community have family in Israel. The snap decision to bring over the group was widely seen as an attempt to curry favor with the Ethiopian Jews in Israel ahead of the election.
A first group of 43 members of the Falashmura arrived in Israel in late February, a week before the election. Responding to the government’s decision to cancel Wednesday’s flight, Kessahun Shiferaw, a prominent activist in the Israeli-Ethiopian community, said: “This is another example of the government’s actions to stop the immigration of our families, when the gates of immigration are open from around the world. Last year the excuse was ‘budgetary reasons.’ Today the excuse is ‘corona.’”