It was back in 1987 when Janet Weiner made her first trip to Israel. "A 10-day, 11-hotel tour," she joked. "It was a whirlwind."
Then one trip became two. Then four. Then 16.
Yesterday, the Rockville resident checked her luggage for another El Al flight, but this one was different. Along with about 250 other Jews on board, Weiner held a one-way ticket.
"We will be Israelis when we land," declared the systems engineer, who is in her late fifties.
Weiner is part of a growing number of North American Jews who have decided to move to Israel, officials say. Despite the risk of suicide bombings, nearly 3,000 Jews from North America have put down roots in Israel this year -- "a number we didn't see for a generation," said Michael Landsberg of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a nonprofit group.
Many factors are behind the increase, ranging from a recent abatement in violence in Israel to a post-9/11 sense among Americans that they could be targeted anywhere, Jewish groups said. But this is also a triumph of marketing, the groups said: Israelis are eagerly reaching out to North American Jews, offering everything from financial incentives to help in cutting red tape.
"There was a legend in Israel that all Americans are rich and wealthy" and didn't need help to migrate, said Landsberg, who focuses on North America for the Jewish Agency, which is chartered by the Israeli government to encourage immigration. "We want more people to join us and especially people from here that are very well-educated and can really contribute."
To spur immigration, the Israeli government is offering grants of about $3,300 per person, which can be supplemented by thousands more from a private Jewish organization called Nefesh B'Nefesh, officials said. A host of other incentives are offered by the government and Jewish organizations: free religious or secular education for children, tax breaks, university scholarships, help in finding a job.
Or, as Landsberg describes them: "tailor-made solutions for the customers."
The result: Even as worldwide immigration to Israel has dropped, the number of North Americans relocating there has risen, from about 1,500 a year in the late 1990s to this year's total of nearly 3,000, Landsberg said. That's the highest level in two decades, he said.
Weiner had thought about moving to Israel for years. Her older daughter and three grandchildren live in Jerusalem. And, in nearly 30 visits, Weiner was captivated by the beauty of the landscape and the warmth of the people.
"You step into a different spiritual climate," she said, sitting in her Rockville apartment days before leaving. A few plastic plants, some boxes and two chairs were all that was left of her belongings.
Still, it was no small thing to pick up and move to a new country, especially without a job. Weiner said the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B'Nefesh have helped in numerous ways. They brought an Israeli high-tech expert to the Washington area to offer advice on the job market; they called Weiner to discuss her rיsumי. They expedited the paperwork for her legal documents and provided her with a free ticket for the flight that left yesterday from New York.
"There is this wonderful net that has been stretched out by these agencies -- a soft, warm, welcoming net," Weiner said.
And the violence in Israel?
"When you're there, you see life is very -- ordinary is not the word. People do go about their business," Weiner said. "Everyone is busy living."
Brett Schor, 28, of Fredericksburg also was among the 20 people from the area on yesterday's flight. He acknowledged that some of his friends were surprised by his decision to settle in Israel.
"The images they see are filled with violence," he said. But his family has visited Israel and feels it is generally safe, he said.
Schor actually has been living in Israel for the past year and a half, studying for a master's degree in politics at Hebrew University. His initial plan was to finish the degree and come home. But a funny thing happened on the way to his master's.
"You just have these moments when you're in Israel, and you recognize the significance of where you are and how meaningful it is that today there's a Jewish state," he said.
Those moments, he said, added up to a decision to migrate, or make aliyah, as it is known in Hebrew. What attracted Schor most was the chance to live in Jewish surroundings, he said.
"I grew up in a predominantly non-Jewish environment" in Fredericksburg, he said. "Even though Israel is an extremely diverse country, the lowest common denominator is that most of the population is Jewish. I feel a lot of comfort in that."
Like Weiner, Schor will live in Jerusalem. Few of the newly arrived North Americans head for Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied territories, said Charley Levine, a spokesman for Nefesh B'Nefesh.
Schor, Weiner and the other North American immigrants were scheduled to be greeted at Ben Gurion Airport this morning by Natan Sharansky, the Israeli minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs. The welcoming ceremony was to be a sign of how much Israel values the new arrivals.
Overall immigration to Israel has been dropping since hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union migrated in a huge wave in the 1990s. As of mid-December, about 19,500 Jews had moved to Israel this year, nearly half from the former Soviet Union, according to statistics provided by the Jewish Agency. Jews have a right to citizenship under Israel's Law of Return.
Weiner said the days leading up to her departure were filled with emotional goodbyes. That was the hardest part about moving.
"It's tough to say, 'I won't see you for a while,' " she said. But she was undeterred by the distance she was moving, by her limited Hebrew or by the enormity of starting a new life.
"People say they can hear the smile in my voice," she said, as a big grin rippled across her face. "I really am so excited. I'm beside myself."