Francis Ben-Hanni cried as he put his hands on the Western Wall, after finally living up to the promise he had made years earlier to one day make aliya.
He prayed for his wife, Rivka, who could now live as a religious Jew without feeling threatened the way she had living in Massy, a suburb of Paris.
He thought of his daughters, Liat, 10, and Sarit, six, who have suffered from recurring nightmares since the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, which killed 130 people.
And he looked down at his nine-year-old son, Avram, telling him to touch the wall and ask God for whatever he wanted. In Israel, Avram would no longer have to wear a baseball cap over his kippa on the way to school each day.
The Ben-Hannis are among the 81 newly arrived French immigrants who touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport on Tuesday in pursuit of a better life. Many, like the Ben-Hannis, came seeking to raise their children in greater security, as well as to leave an environment they felt was becoming increasingly hostile to Jews.
The flight marked the first of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews Freedom Flights from France this summer. In the next two months, over 400 more French Jews are to make aliya through the IFCJ’s program.
“Aliya is not a dusty relic from the ’50s or ’90s,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the IFCJ, which has settled more than 3,300 Jews in Israel over the past two years.
“Recent events demand that Israel – and the entire global Jewish community – step up their efforts. Many Jews living in France are being threatened by anti-Semitism and economic hardship. We must do our utmost to help them.”
The IFCJ olim represent what has become a significant movement of French Jewish immigration in the past few years, and 10,000 French Jews are expected to immigrate to Israel in 2016, according to an Immigration and Absorption Ministry and Jewish Agency projection in April.
Although France has the one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe, at over half a million, more than 63 percent of Jews have experienced anti-Semitism there, according to the Diaspora Affairs Ministry. In addition, the wave of terrorist attacks across Europe – from the suicide bombing in Istanbul’s airport on Tuesday to the shooting at the Hyper Cacher Jewish market in Paris last year – have left many feeling particularly vulnerable.
“We made the decision to leave six months ago, after the terror in the Bataclan [theater],” said Valerie Nakash, 48, who came to Israel with her two children, ages 19 and 21. “We don’t see a future in France anymore. There is too much tension there.”
Another new arrival, Ilan Zarka, 36, says he felt anti-Semitism all around him. When people looked at him, he said, he could see hostility in their eyes. He often did not feel accepted by non-Jews and wanted his children to grow up in a more welcoming society.
“The religious Jews have a difficult life in France,” Zarka said. “In France it is the same [religious] practice, but here there is a different feeling, a feeling in my heart of something good. Here there is the presence of holiness and unity.”
The sense of unity is a feeling that IFCJ works hard to create. On Wednesday, the olim gathered in Kibbutz Ramat Rahel to take part in a series of seminars, covering everything from banking to health insurance, meant to help ease their entry into Israeli society.
“In the past, when you make aliya, you receive a flight ticket and the papers, but no one deals with the human issues,” said Yael Toledano, IFCJ coordinator of aliya in France. “We are there for them for the next six months to help them create the base for their life in Israel: in education, in housing, and with ulpan; we are working together with the municipalities to integrate them.”
In addition to providing a helping hand, Toledano says, IFCJ strives to create a sense of community for the new Israelis.
“They are coming here without friends a lot of times, and so we are their contacts, their friends. We are bringing olim as a group to create a platform of contacts,” she said. “The olim are our future. They are coming with children, they are very connected to Israel, very patriotic. They are fulfilling a dream.”
The Ben-Hannis have enjoyed their time in Israel and are looking forward to settling into their new life in Hadera.
“I love all the sun in this country,” said Francis, who lived on a kibbutz for four years in his youth. “And I can go out with my kippa and I can live my Judaism like I want.”
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