As a group of well-wishers waved tiny Israeli flags and shouted “Welcome home,” Diane Hewitt of Hoboken, New Jersey, off the El Al jet that had just flown her to Tel Aviv from New York, cradling her 8-year-old blind beagle, Annie, in her arms.
A retired jewelry industry executive, Hewitt had always dreamed of moving to Israel, but she didn’t want to leave behind her daughter, Sarah. But after Sarah herself immigrated to Israel a year ago and married an Israeli, there was little to keep Hewitt in New Jersey.
“I came to Israel for the first time in 2014, got off the plane and fell in love,” Hewitt said as she petted Annie, who had accompanied her as an ESA, or emotional support animal (Hewitt has Parkinson’s disease). “You feel at home, and everybody is family. It’s a feeling like no other.”
Hewitt arrived at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Dec. 27 along with 92 other new immigrants aboard the last of 19 Nefesh B’Nefesh’s 2017 aliyah flights. The specially designated flights brought the total number of immigrants to Israel from the United States and Canada to 3,633 for the year. Overall, about 29,000 immigrants from around the world arrived in Israel in 2017.
The last year saw a noticeable shift in the types of immigrants coming to Israel from North America, according to Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, co-founder and executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh. While about 65 percent of Americans and Canadians immigrating to Israel as families consider themselves Orthodox, approximately 60 percent of single olim are non-Orthodox, with a growing number of single, non-Orthodox young adults moving to Tel Aviv, Rabbi Fass said.
Most immigrants move to locales with strong English-speaking communities, such as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Modiin, Beit Shemesh and Raanana. But increasingly, olim are finding homes elsewhere.
In 2017, Nefesh B’Nefesh launched “Go Beyond,” an initiative organized in partnership with KKL to encourage new immigrants to settle in Israel’s less densely populated northern and southern regions. Hundreds answered the call.
Last year’s 3,633 arrivals from North America — ranging in age from 5 weeks to 102 years — included 377 families, 677 children, 358 Israeli soldiers, 54 doctors and 16 psychologists. Broken down by state and province, they came mostly (in descending order) from New York, California, New Jersey, Florida, Ontario, Maryland and Quebec.
“We want to make sure individuals in the Diaspora know there are options and real opportunities in areas that they might not have explored,” Rabbi Fass said. He noted that smaller towns in northern and southern Israel are “far more affordable than Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.”
Popular destinations in northern Israel include Safed, Karmiel, Zichron Yaakov and Tiberias, with Beersheba, Ashkelon, Eilat, Ofakim and Mitzpe Ramon among choices in the south.
Since its founding in 2002, Nefesh B’Nefesh — which works with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL) and JNF-USA to facilitate Jewish immigration to Israel from the United States, Canada and Great Britain — has brought nearly 55,000 people to Israel.
December’s most recent arrivals included Phyllis Zur and her Israeli-born husband, Nitzan, of West Orange, New Jersey.
“I had a lifelong dream to become a citizen of Israel,” Phyllis Zur said. “It’s taken me until now, at age 72, to realize it.”
“I believe Israel is the insurance policy of the Jewish people,” she added while waiting for her luggage. “I want to be an example to my grandchildren.”