TEL AVIV (JTA) – Descending from the plane with her parents and three siblings, the first thing that struck Leslie Elgrably at Ben Gurion Airport was the intense heat and humidity.
Elgrably, 24, from the Paris suburb of Antony, was among more than 600 French citizens who immigrated to the Jewish state on July 25 in what was the largest single-day aliyah from France since 1972.
The olim came on flights from Paris and Marseilles organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel and AMI, which promotes and supports aliyah from France.
“We were all exhausted but very excited,” Elgrably said after an airport ceremony marked by speeches by Israeli President Shimon Peres, Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski and AMI founder Pierre Besnainou. “The officials and the press all made a big deal about this.”
A few days later, after the hoopla had subsided, Elgrably said she had bittersweet feelings about the move.
“At first I felt like I was on yet another vacation in Israel,” she said, sitting on the terrace of her uncle’s apartment in Netanya, where her family is staying for a couple of weeks until their place nearby is ready. “I was out the other night with friends in Tel Aviv, in a club right on the beach, just like on vacation. But all these boxes and suitcases stacked up in the apartment here are proof that this time we are here to stay.”
“I feel like I am in limbo. I am sad about leaving Antony, where we went to Jewish schools, ate kosher food and generally had a good life in a strong Jewish community. We experienced very little anti-Semitism there, and our decision to move to Israel was not at all about running away from France.”
In Netanya, her parents appear nervous. Her 6-year-old sister cries a lot.
“We are waiting to move in to our own place,” Elgrably said.
She plans to open a home-based skin care and beautician business in Netanya, the same line of business she had in France.
Jewish Agency officials say they expect more than 3,000 immigrants from France this year, the largest number since 1972, when immigrants stopped coming by ship and began arriving by plane.
Last week’s mass immigration took place the day after Tisha B’Av, which marks the destruction of the Holy Temple and the Jews’ dispersal to the Diaspora, making the aliyah religiously and historically symbolic.
“Your ancestors were kicked out of the Holy Land in 70 A.D.,” AMI President Gil Taieb said over the plane’s loudspeaker system just minutes before landing. “Many went to Spain, from where they were dispersed in 1492 by the Inquisition on the same day of the [Jewish] calendar. Many went to North Africa, and eventually came to France in the early 1960s. Now you are finally returning to Israel. The circle has been closed.”
Some 85 families will live in Netanya, the coastal city north of Tel Aviv that already has the largest number of French-speaking people in Israel, almost all of Moroccan, Tunisian and Algerian origins. France is home to about 600,000 Jews, 70 percent of whom are of North African origin.
The next most popular destinations for last week’s olim are Ashdod and Jerusalem. Several other families are moving to Eilat, Israel’s resort city on the Red Sea, and Akko, on the northern coast. A few students said they would live in Tel Aviv.
Danielle Attelan, 20, arrived alone and will live at the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus in Jerusalem. The Jewish Agency will pay for her three-year course of study in political science and journalism.
“I didn’t want to live in Tel Aviv because it is too much like Paris,” Attelan said with a laugh. “Talk to me in a few years. I will be a journalist in Israel.”
Many of the new arrivals have close family in Israel. French Sephardim are only one or two generations away from the exodus from North Africa around 1960, precipitated by independence from France, and in many cases family members went to Israel rather than to France. Relatives maintained their family ties, and some Israeli family members of the immigrants came to the airport last week to welcome the new arrivals.
The flight from Paris included husband and wife Moise and Louise Bettan; he is 96 and she is 91. They made aliyah in their wheelchairs.
“We have been dreaming of this moment since 1948,” said Moise.
Both were born in Algeria; now they will live in Netanya, where one of their sons has a home.
Lucid and articulate, Moise said, “I guess we are proof that it is never too late to make aliyah.”
At the airport ceremony, Peres welcomed the olim.
“This is a magnificent day for all of us,” he said. “Israel is a passion-filled country, where we are still resolving our national problems. Now you are part of the process. I cannot promise you it will be easy, but you will never be bored here.”