"We could have lived a cushy life, but that's not important," said, Tamar Rudy, a 27-year-old mother of four who left a legal assistant's job in Baltimore. "Raising our kids here is important."
More than 21 months of fighting and a worsening economy have kept many immigrants away. There were 45,000 newcomers last year, compared with 60,000 in 2000, according to the Jewish Agency, a quasi-government group that brings immigrants to Israel.
Some of the 371 immigrants who arrived Tuesday said they were tired of waiting for the fighting to end before making their move. Others said a desire to be closer to the biblical homeland and to strengthen the Jewish state outweighed their fears of coming.
Essential for others were per capita grants of dlrs 5,000 - about dlrs 2 million altogether - donated by American Evangelical Christians, who want to encourage what they see as the biblically foretold return of Jewish exiles to the Holy Land.
Their money goes to the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a group that supports new immigrants in Israel.
Bishop Huey Harris, 73, of the First Pentecostal Tabernacle Church in Elkton, Maryland, raised dlrs 2,500 from his congregation.
"What I'm seeing is the Scriptures being fulfilled right before our very eyes," he said in a phone interview from Maryland. "What's next? I'm looking for the church to be raptured, Jesus returning for the church ... and the Jews would receive him as their Messiah."
Some of the immigrants said they felt awkward about accepting money from the group but were grateful for it. Many Israelis have mixed feelings about the friendship of the Evangelicals, since their ultimate goal is to convert Jews to Christianity.
"The U.S. has the biggest Jewish community in the world - 5.5 million people. That's more than Israel," Jewish Agency spokesman Efraim Lapid said. "We see the community in the U.S. as a strategic reservoir."
The El Al charter flight from New York brought the first group of Jewish immigrants to arrive en masse in recent years. Half of them are to live in Beit Shemesh, a city in the foothills outside of Jerusalem. Three families are moving to Gush Etzion, a bloc of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and several hundred other Israelis, many of them American immigrants, greeted the newcomers with hugs in the shade of an airport hangar.
One of those making "Aliyah," a Hebrew word for immigration that literally means "ascending," was Noa Hirsch, a 22-year-old law student from Pittsburgh, Pa. She said she came to Israel "to join my people in my land."
Hirsch said she was moving to Jerusalem and didn't worry much that the city has been the hardest hit by Palestinian attackers.
"Maybe I'm being foolish, but I don't think so," Hirsch said. "Terror is everywhere. I'm not going to let someone tell me how to live my life."
Palestinians blame Israel for the 21 months of violence, charging that Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and its restrictions on their movement have embittered many. Traditionally, Palestinians have opposed Israel's wide-open immigration laws for the world's Jews, while Israel limits Palestinian immigration.
Hirsch said the mood on the flight was excited, and people shared dreams of their new lives. Even the pilot told passengers over the intercom how his grandparents came to Israel in the 1800s, Hirsch said.
Michal Hershtal, 22, from Memphis, Tennessee, will be the first from her family to live in Israel. "Somebody's got to start," said the woman, who will settle near Tel Aviv with her husband Danny, one of a handful of passengers from Canada.
Tamar Rudy, the legal assistant from Baltimore, wanted to join family already here - her sister and mother. Rudy and her husband Mitch hauled 17 big boxes on the roof of a taxi van to their new home in Ramat Beit Shemesh.
"When I'm here, I feel like it's where I belong," she said. She wants her four children, the oldest one 7 years old, to be closer to their Jewish identity. It's a big sacrifice. Her husband had just finished dental school and the family had a house in Baltimore.
Rudy's mother, Nomi Malek, 55, was born in Hungary, and before moving to the United States, she came as a little girl to Israel for the refuge the Jewish state provided after World War II. Her father survived the Auschwitz Nazi death camp; his first wife and three children perished.
"My mother didn't want to raise me in a place where she suffered," Malek said. A new generation of Western immigrants, like her daughter, is coming in search of something spiritual, not for refuge, she said.
Malek, who returned to Israel after a divorce, hesitated to encourage her daughters to follow in such tough times. "I could not tell them to come," she said. "I feel responsibility. But I'm happy," she said, hugging Tamar.
At Tamar Rudy's new white stone apartment, her four children were already at play. Three-year-old Yisraoel was splashing around in a lawn sprinkler and 5-year-old Tzipora wanted to dig into a box for her favorite doll.
Tamar beamed as she crossed the threshold, shouting, "Honey, I'm home."