JERUSALEM, Israel – Nearly 70 years before the rebirth of the modern State of Israel, the Jewish people began to return to their ancient homeland, as the prophets foretold. And they're still coming.
It's called 'aliyah' – literally 'going up.' Taken from biblical times, the term describes the Israelites going up to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple. Today, it means immigrating or returning to Israel.
They come from all over the world to a place many have never been. Yet the Jewish people have longed to return to this land for thousands of years.
Sarah, 32, emigrated from France with her husband and baby. Dilan said he emigrated from because "I love Israel!" Debbie, 29, is a psychologist who emigrated from Cordova, Argentina. Nikita emigrated from Russia. He studied nuclear physics and loves Israel.
Gadi emigrated from Brooklyn, NY. "I'm a lawyer in New York and I'm here because it's the only Jewish state there is and I love it here."
Why They Come
CBN'S Scott Ross spoke to some of the new immigrants at a center where many live when they first arrive.
"You're American. Why did you come?" Ross asked Katharine, 26, from Arizona, USA.
"It's a beautiful country. I love it here. Arizona's beautiful, but it's not Israel," she said.
"Because it's a country for Jewish [people]," said David Rujinsky, 21, from Ukraine. "It's my dream to live here. It's hard to live (the) Jewish religion in Ukraine. I think it's my country, my home."
"Rio de Janeiro is a dangerous city. And the economy there is not so good," Ilan, 29, from Brazil told Ross.
"You said it's a dangerous city there, but Israel's surrounded by people who would like to destroy this land and would like to see the Jews pushed into the sea. You don't feel any fear here, any anxiety?" Ross asked him.
"No, not like in Brazil. I have five friends in Brazil who got [shot] – one died, another one [lost] movement in her left arm. So for sure I feel safer here than in Brazil," Ilan said.
Gathering of the Exiles
Last year, 27,000 new immigrants arrived in Israel, including more than 3,600 from the US.
Ross spoke with Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, which oversees bringing the Jewish people home.
"For almost 3,000 years we were disconnected, but we were praying for Jerusalem. So it's really the gathering of the exiles and it continues every day," Sharansky told CBN News.
"I'm very proud to be head of the organization now which brought 3.5 million Jews from the creation of the State of Israel and 700,000 from Arab countries; a few hundred thousand Jews from concentration camps from Europe; one million from [the] Soviet Union. We reached Ethiopia and brought more than 100,000 Jews, [and also] the Lost Tribes," Sharansky said.
"What is it that inspires people to do this – (to be) uprooted from their culture, their country, everything they know to come to an unknown land?" Ross asked.
"I lived a life of an absolute assimilated person, without roots and I know how shallow, how decadent is life without identity -- when you can't really connect yourself to anything, when you don't have any heritage to give to your children," Sharansky said. "And then, I also discovered a different life, life with identity, life inside history."
Sharansky made headlines in the 80s as a political prisoner in the former Soviet Union. International pressure led to his release and he immigrated to Israel in 1986.
"I meet with a lot of new immigrants and I love to be in the airport to see the moment of going down from the airplane because you think that after each of these people, there are at least 50 generations of Jews who were praying and dreaming about coming to Jerusalem," Sharansky told us. "And here each of them [is] closing a huge circle of thousands of years of exile."
A Time When Jews will 'Never Be Dispersed Again'
Biblical prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, among others, all spoke of a time when God would bring the Jewish people back to the Land of Israel. Amos said they'll never be dispersed again.
"I will also plant them on their land, and they will not again be rooted out from their land which I have given them," says the Lord your God." (Amos 9:15, NASB)
"It's our land, all of the Jews," said Hanna, 22, from Russia. "You know the history of the Jewish people, it's like the history of my relatives and that's why it's good to be here."
Although they're part of a prophetic and exciting journey, immigrants face a whole new world when they arrive.
That's why the state works to create a smooth transition.
Ziva Avrahami leads Ulpan Etzion at Beit Canada – an absorption center in Jerusalem. New immigrants live here free for five months so they can focus on learning Hebrew and living in Israel.
"Some of them left everything – left the friends, the family, the smell, the food, the jobs, all the things that they knew, they are coming here to start the new life," said Avrahami.
"We call it the first home in the homeland. They have like a soft landing. They don't need to be afraid of things because we help them to be a part of Israel, but step by step," Avrahami told CBN News. "I admire the people that are doing it. I think they need to be so brave to leave everything behind and to start a new life."
"Why did you decide to do this?" Ross asked Avrahami.
"I am here because I think that these people will lead this country – the lawyers, the people that did some beautiful things, the doctors, dentists, psychologists. You can see here, more than 45 countries. All of them are coming here because they believe that Israel is their land – the land of the Jewish people," she said.
Avrahami said that learning Hebrew is critical for becoming part of Israel
"The main reason that people are here in this absorption center is to get to know the language," she said. "Hebrew is the key to the Israeli society. If you want to be part of Israel, if you want to be the leader of this beautiful country, you need to know the language.
"So, we teach them five days a week, five hours each day, it's really hard. … But, here we believe that without the language, you cannot be a part of Israel," she added.
Ulpan Etzion is mainly for millennials who have a university degree. You could say it's like a prophetic melting pot.
"Forty-five percent of the people here on the campus are religious – in different ways of religious. But, most of them come to the synagogue, have prayers three times a day, keeping Shabbat, keeping all the holidays," Avrahami explained.
"Are there conflicts between them? Culturally, socially, adapting and adjusting to one another? Is that difficult?" Ross asked.
"Yes, there are different people from different places. The culture is different, the language is different. Everything is different – the food, the smell, the behavior. So to put together – 250 young adults in one place – you can imagine what is going here in the evenings. A lot of people are becoming friends for life," she said.
"Do the majority of them then stay in Israel or do they want to go back to their homes?"
"Let's say that the first year and the second one are the hardest ones. If you survive the two years, people are staying in Israel. This is going to be their home. So, they are finding jobs, they [are] getting married, and they get families and they come here to stay in Israel," she said.
Teren, 33, was a fashion designer in South Africa.
"It's the Land of the Jewish people and that is why I'm here. I want essentially to come home and to be with my fellow Jews and to – please God – find a Jewish husband," Teren told Ross. She said she'd like to continue in the fashion industry here in Israel.
"Is your family still in South Africa?" Ross asked.
Yes, everybody's in South Africa. I have no family in Israel, no close family. I've got some distant relatives that I'm reconnecting with, which is also amazing and special. I think a lot of Jewish people around the world can find a relative in Israel," Teren said.
"I came to Israel because I feel like it's the homeland of the Jewish people and for the first time in 2,000 years we have our own homeland and we could build a prosperous Jewish state," said Shimon, 24, who was born in England and emigrated from Australia. "I think that's very exciting to be a part of."
Shimon said he had studied accounting and finance and hoped to find a job in that area in Israel.
"Do you want to get married?" Ross asked.
"Yeah, for sure! That's why I'm here in Israel. There [are] plenty of beautiful Jewish girls and I hope I can find one of them!" he said.
As Sharansky prepares to leave his role at the Jewish Agency, he asked if he thought all the Jewish people need to come home.
"Our prophets speak about it very clearly about this grand design of ingathering of the people of Israel in the Land of Israel. But God does not work for us, for (the) Jewish Agency. God has His own plans, when and how and which way He is bringing [the people].
"So it's a very good place, but it's a very personal decision. And I want to help the people to make this decision, not by giving orders, not by pushing them, even not by shaming them. But simply, by giving them the feeling how good it is," he said.