JERUSALEM, Israel - In his first year as chairman of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky had the pleasure of presiding over the biggest increase in aliyah (immigration to Israel under the Law of Return) in 10 years.
In 2009, a total of 16,244 Jews immigrated to Israel, a 17 percent increase over last year, which saw 13,859 new arrivals.
"After 10 years during which we saw less and less immigrants, we now see an increase," Sharansky told reporters at a press conference at the Jewish Agency's Jerusalem headquarters on Sunday.
"This year there were more immigrants from the former Soviet Union, more immigrants from the United States, from Britain and from South Africa. There's an increase from almost everywhere," Sharansky said.
"Every oleh [immigrant] who arrives in Israel strengthens it and represents a crucial strategic asset for the country," he said.
Eli Cohen, director-general of the Jewish Agency's aliyah department, reported a 17 percent increase in English-speaking olim (immigrants) from 4,511 in 2008 to 5,294 in 2009.
Around 2,600 Jews emigrated from Europe, up from 2,402 the previous year. South American immigrants numbered 1,230, compared with 1,078 last year.
There was a 21 percent increase - from 5,867 to 7,120 - of immigration from the former Soviet Union.
"It's symbolic that a change for the better in aliyah is taking place on the 20th anniversary of aliyah from the former Soviet Union," Immigration and Absorption Minister Sofa Landver said.
The agency's "Aliyah on a Red Carpet" program has helped immigrants acclimate to their new home. Almost immediately after arriving in Israel, new arrivals attend aliyah fairs, which walk them through some of the practical necessities, such as opening an Israeli bank account, choosing one of four national health care programs, etc.
Israelis living abroad are also returning. A new government program offering financial incentives, such as tax benefits and help finding jobs, is bringing increasing numbers back home.
Sharansky said he hopes the government will facilitate the aliyah of an estimated 8,700 Ethiopian Jews, many of whom already have family in the country. In January, another 250 Ethiopians will make Israel their home.
Over the past 10 years, some 221,000 Jews have immigrated to their historic homeland, irrefutable evidence of biblical prophecy being fulfilled.
Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post contributed to this report.