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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
An entire planeload of 150 immigrants from five South American countries will arrive on Thursday, evidence of the 15-20 percent increase in aliya from the region over past year.
"This is the first time that such a big group is coming together on aliya," said Silvina Sofna, the Jewish Agency's Latin American aliya director. The olim are from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru and Uruguay, most aged 25-30, she said.
The plane, which is leaving from Sao Paulo on Tuesday, will be flown by Javier Ruben, an El Al Israel Airways employee born in Argentina who worked in Mexico for two years as a Jewish Agency aliya emissary.
"I like that I'm closing the circles of my life," Ruben said, explaining how interesting it is that he would be bringing these Latin American immigrants to Israel as a Latin American immigrant himself.
Ruben made aliya at age 12 with his mother and three siblings. He joined the army in 1979 and earned his pilot's wings. For 20 years, he flew transport carriers for the IAF, including the C-130 Hercules. At 48, he is still proud to serve 60 days a year of reserve duty and fly planes, because "it keeps me young."
In 2002, Ruben took a break from flying planes and went to Mexico as a Jewish Agency aliya emissary for Central and South America. After two years, he returned to Israel and got a job flying Boeing 777 planes for El Al.
Two months ago, the agency contacted Ruben to see if he was interested in flying the plane of immigrants from Latin America. He agreed and said he felt like a true Zionist to be one of the four pilots on the upcoming flight.
Ruben, who lives in Modi'in with his family, told The Jerusalem Post he was excited and thought it was an interesting Zionist idea to be flying a plane of immigrants, especially since he sees himself as an Argentinean, an Israeli who served in the army and someone who worked for the Jewish Agency.
He has flown the 14 hour and 45 minute direct route from Sao Paulo to Tel Aviv three times since May, when the airline inaugurated the flight. Ruben said he would be flying to Sao Paulo a few days beforehand to prepare the olim for their trip.
The immigrants will be greeted with a ceremony at the Western Wall on Thursday at 5 p.m., after spending the day at a fair where various agencies and services will be available to ease the absorption process.
Noting that this is the first time in many years that the Jewish Agency has been able to organize a group flight out of Latin America, Sofna said it expects the numbers of total immigrants from Latin America to surpass the tally of 1,090 immigrants who came in 2008, since about 870 additional immigrants from the area are expected to come through August of this year. The agency is expecting a minimum of 1,200 Latin Americans to move to Israel in 2009.
Jewish Agency officials believe there are about 400,000 Jews living within 20 countries across Latin America. Despite the general increase in aliya from the region, Sofna noted that there had been a dramatic decrease in the number of immigrants from Venezuela after the Israeli Embassy was removed from the country earlier this year, with only eight coming this year. Argentina is sending the most immigrants, with a total of 117 who have already made aliya in 2009.
The Jewish Agency has also been working with the Organization of Latin-American Spanish and Portuguese in Israel (OLEI). The volunteer organization coordinated with the agency to help the immigrants "from the moment they get off the plane and into Israel," said OLEI President Mario Laib.
Laib explained that the OLEI volunteers would be "a support network" and would help the immigrants with all their transactions through the absorption process, from paperwork, to finding schools, renting apartments and hosting social and cultural activities to help them acclimate to Israeli society.
"We are making a big effort to take care of [the olim] as a group, but also help them at the individual level," he said. Some 30 volunteers will be in Jerusalem helping the immigrants and more OLEI volunteers will meet the immigrants in various areas of the country, he said.
Laib constantly works with Latin American immigrants and said they came more prepared and were more ideological now than in other years, when aliya had been more to escape economic hardships and anti-Semitic governments.
"It's not aliya to escape but aliya that is programmed under calm conditions and much more organized," he said, explaining that the people moving to Israel from Latin America more recently are young and educated. Many have Jewish and Zionist educations and were looking for better futures and careers in Israel, he said.
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