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(photo credit: Courtesy of Brian Hendler)
"My life just started now," exclaimed Heath Ash, a 35-year-old immigrant from South Africa. After only a day in the country he was already a citizen, and about to start life in a place he had never been before and where he has no family.
Ash - who plans to spend six months on a kibbutz, then get a job and move to Tel Aviv - was one of 70 immigrants from South Africa and Zimbabwe who were given their Israeli ID cards at a ceremony at the Western Wall on Thursday.
Not only was this the first time such an event was held at the Western Wall, the immigrants received their ID cards within 24 hours of stepping off the plane - another first.
The immigrants - babies, parents and grandparents - sat in matching white T-shirts in rows of chairs on the the Western Wall plaza.
"Although we have left our African homes in sadness, we have finally come home," said Amanda Cohen of Zimbabwe, who spoke on behalf of the group.
The ceremony included numerous speeches by officials involved in the aliya process.
"You know that South Africa belongs to South Africans, but once you move to Israel, it's the state of the Jewish people," said Mendel Kaplan, a philanthropist and leader in the South African and Israeli Jewish communities.
Noga Maliniak, head of the Jewish Agency's aliya division, said that the ceremony at the Wall was meant to make the experience more emotional and memorable for the new citizens.
Throughout the ceremony, small crowds formed as many passers-by looked on enthusiastically and even took pictures of the new citizens.
One by one, family names were called to get ID cards. Beaming, the olim returned to their seats to examine and admire their proof of citizenship.
"It was an awesome feeling," said Adam Frame of Johannesburg, who will be studying at Aish Hatorah and plans to eventually live near Jerusalem with his wife Jennifer and baby daughter.
South Africa's aliya has nearly doubled from 2008 to 2009.
"[There is] a tremendous Zionistic community in South Africa," Telfed chairman Maish Isaacson said.
In addition, the Jewish Agency has made increasing South African aliya one of its big projects over the past two years. This has led to a large percentage of those leaving South Africa to choose Israel over the English-speaking countries where many used to go.
The immigrants spoke highly about their reception in Israel, a process the officials have dubbed aliya "on a red carpet." The aliya approval process is handled back in South Africa, and the immigrants have much less to take care of upon arriving.
"This has been the most brilliantly organized process," said Basha Rick. She and her husband Basil are moving here primarily to be with their children and grandchildren.
Like many of the immigrants, the Ricks have been to Israel before and are somewhat familiar with the country.
Ash, however, did not seem intimidated by the country, even though he had never set foot here.
"We're all Jewish, and it's where we're supposed to be," he said.