They sang "The Star Spangled Banner" first, but that was more a formality than anything else. Then they launched into "Hatikvah," the Israeli anthem. Some sang with closed eyes. Voices boomed through the last bars, a group of women ending the song with a descant crescendo.

It was a joyous occasion. Emotions run strong among Jews when it comes to "making aliyah," or immigrating to Israel. When about 400 people gathered recently at Ohr Kodesh Congregation to bid farewell to 35 of 43 families who are departing for their ancestral home, the sense of commitment to an ancient ideal reverberated in the words, the music and the dancing of the evening's celebration.

To make aliyah. The phrase itself has a special, spiritual quality. It is even the motto sung by a series of posters printed by the newly formed. Greater Washington Aliyah Council. "Stop Procrastinating. Aliyah Now! Now More Than Ever," one of them proclaims.

"Jews for 2,000 years have been speaking for 'going up to Israel,'" said Bernie Rosenberg, the first chairman of the aliyah council. "Wherever they are -- north, south, east or west -- they speak of 'going up to Israel,' from Palestine, Egypt. You're going up to the Holy Land. This is the concept of the Jewish love for Israel."

About 3,200 people immigrate to Israel each year from the United States and Canada, according to The Israel Aliyah Center Inc. The Center estimates that, of that number, about 30 to 40 percent return to American within the first three years of their departure.

Most of those who attended the celebration said they are going to Israel as the ultimate expression of their religious ideals, or, as Israeli Abassador Ephraim Evron put it in his remarks to the group "the most important element in Zionism."

"Coming to Israel is not an easy thing, I suppose," said Envron. "The 35 families (at the gathering) may seem like a small commitment. Of the first group, nearly 100 years ago, only 16 reached the shores from Russia. Yet those 16 began the rebuilding (of Israel) . . . We cannot offer you palaces or the comforts of life you have here, but we can offer you full Jewish life in the land of Jewish people."

Sandy Knisbacher gave a stock response to the question "why go?"

"Because my husband has always wanted to go," she said.

Knisbacher added that, once they have settled, she will work on leading Hebrew while caring for their 8-month-old daughter. Her husband Mitch will teach law outside TEL aviv, in conjunction with his work on a doctorate in international law with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Knisbacher commented that "a comfortable aliyah can cost $40,000," a figure that fluctuates according to whether a family ships its furniture and appliances. The cost of immigrating is also affected by the housing a family takes, even though apartments are more plentiful than detached homes.

"There's very little renting in israel," said Fred Schulman, the vice president in charge of energy affairs for the Louis D. Brandeis Zionist Organization of America. "The ordinary thing is to buy, not rent. They say people have got to get attached to the land. It makes better citizens."

Schulman said that Americans who are newly arrived in Israel "usually want nicer apartments than Israelis." He noted with grimace the added expense of gasoline, which costs $4 per gallon there.

Bruce Brill said he, his wife and two children are immigrating because "we're more needed there than we are here." He said they will live on a settlement in Judea or Samaria, lands occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, Although this is a plan some might consider dangerous in view of the violence that has taken place there, Brill said he is not afraid.

"It's safer than living anywhere else in Israel," said Brill. "Have you ever heard of an Arab bus getting blown up? Security is very important to me."

The scene at Ohr Kodesh Congregation was an international one. Rosa Fania is ending her visit in the United States to return to Israel, where she has lived since her family emigrated from Russia when she was a child. Armando Groisman came here from Argentina to study international law and now plans to continue his work in Israel.

All of these individuals, couples and families have a singular aim in mind. Shmuel Shay, director of the Israeli Aliyah Center Inc., described to the group the comforts of life in Israel "where every day school in a Jewish day school, where every community center is a Jewish community center, where every building is built by Jews."

Shay told a joke which everyone appreciated and which touched on the mood shared by the evening's celebrants.

Shay told of an Israeli journalist who approached a newcomer from Russia.

"How is life in Russia?" the journalist asked.

"I can't complain," said the Russian. "How are the prices in Russia?" the journalist asked.

"I can't complain," said the Russian. "How are the schools in Russia?" the journalist asked.

"I can't complain," said the Russian.

"Well, if life is so good in Russia, why did you come here?" the journalist said.

The Russian said, "Because here, I. can complain."