Through the glass ceiling: The hotel business

Rachel Goldberg makes hospitality not just an art, but a profession.

September 28, 2006 11:49
Through the glass ceiling: The hotel business

glass ceiling 88. (photo credit: )


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If Rachel Goldberg invites you for coffee, or better still for dinner, it's unlikely that you'll find yourself sitting in her kitchen or dining room. Rather, you might sit in her office or the lobby or dining room of the Jerusalem Gate Hotel where she is the general manager, and spends far more time than she does at home Goldberg never planned to get into the hotel business. In school, she wanted to study medicine, but she also wanted to have a family and knew that medicine was a demanding profession in which family interests often had to be sacrificed, so she compromised and studied psychology. Born in Massachusetts to a Polish father and a Lithuanian mother who left Palestine just a month before her arrival in the world, Goldberg came, as a practicing psychologist, to Israel in 1970. She and her first husband, from whom she is divorced, settled in Neve Ilan where she now lives with her second husband. Neve Ilan was established as a kibbutz in 1946 by a group of 31 French pioneers who began building a guest house where the present lobby and dining room now stand. The kibbutz was disbanded and abandoned in 1956. In the late 1960s, Young Judea in America brought together a nucleus of people who wanted a change in lifestyle and were happy to start new lives in Israel in an industrial village. New homes on the site of the abandoned kibbutz were constructed by the Jewish Agency and the first residents, among them the Goldberg family, arrived in 1970. Brimming with idealism, the newcomers employed minimal outside labor to run their orchards, plant nursery, turkey farm and software company. Goldberg took a break from psychology primarily because she wanted to look after her two children, but also because psychology involves language and the psychologist has to be able to communicate with the patient. Although Goldberg's Hebrew was fairly good, there were idioms she was missing and she felt that it would not be right to continue in the profession until she had a firmer grasp of the language. In 1976, after the revived Neve Ilan, which was now a cooperative moshav and not a kibbutz, opened its guesthouse, Goldberg, like other members of the moshav, was inducted into the hospitality business and worked in housekeeping, the kitchen, the dining room, at the reception desk and in reservations and sales. When the opportunity came to take a management course, she enrolled, not because she wanted to be a hotel manager but because she thought she could improve on what she was already doing if she knew the rules of the game of professional management. After she completed the course, the manager of the guesthouse left and she was asked to take his place. It seemed too daunting a task, and she finally agreed to do it on a temporary basis of not more than a year while a suitable replacement was sought. As so often happens in such cases, the year stretched into two and three and more and Goldberg realized she was never going to go back to psychology - she just enjoyed the hospitality business that much more. The guest house was expanded into a hotel, which Goldberg also managed for a few years before moving on to the Mount Zion Hotel in one of the most picturesque locations in Jerusalem. At that time, the Mount Zion was run down and not terribly popular with anyone other than Christian pilgrims who wanted to be as close as possible to the old city. The owners of the facility wanted to turn it into a boutique hotel and introduced extensive renovations that Goldberg had to oversee. "Working at the Mount Zion was an amazing experience," she says as she recalls all that was done to make the hotel flourish. The new owner of the Jerusalem Gate Hotel also has decided to upgrade the premises. "It's never going to be more than a four-star hotel," says Goldberg, "because the rooms are too small for it to be a five-star," but it has been recarpeted, fitted with new furniture and some of the public areas have been redesigned with the aim of upgrading it from low four-star to high four-star. "We want to be the best four star around," says Goldberg. While there are some professions such as law, in which women have not only broken through the glass ceiling but have in some areas become the dominant force, hotel management is not one of them. But Goldberg, who has twice served as chairperson of the Jerusalem Hotels Association, is proud of the fact that there are more women managing hotels in Jerusalem than in any other part of the country. Still that doesn't say much since, in addition to the Jerusalem Gate, the list includes only Jerusalem of Gold, the Park Plaza, Caesar, Mount Zion, Mishkenot Shaananim and David Citadel. Many more hotels are managed by men. Goldberg, however, believes this is not necessarily attributable to deep-seated gender discrimination but to the fact that women tend to be more interested in home life than men and managing a hotel is a 24/7 job - even if a general manager is not physically present, he or she has to be available and accessible around the clock to solve any unexpected problem. "It's impossible for a young woman with children - even if she lives on the premises," says Goldberg. Working in a hotel brings daily surprises, she acknowledges, which is part of the excitement and the challenge - any change of plan can set off a whole slew of chain reactions. At the Jerusalem Gate, for instance, the hotel, which previously outsourced its catering, has decided to inaugurate its own kitchen with its own in-house executive chef, David Caspi, who puts great value on training. Thus, the hotel is training new cooks, new kitchen staff and new waiters, and is also introducing a new menu, though Goldberg hastens to add that the standard of kashrut will remain unchanged and The Jerusalem Gate, at the entrance to the city, will continue to be a glatt kosher facility. Part of the hotel's overhaul includes a major change in the computer system. Does Goldberg believe that women make better hotel managers than men? She dismisses that kind of generalization, pointing out that management, like most other things, is a matter of individual style. Each of the women managing hotels in Jerusalem has her own style, she says, noting that management also varies depending on the nature, size and location of the hotel. "In a large hotel, I have to manage people. I have to manage department managers, because ultimately, I'm the one that's responsible" - a different experience from when she was in a small hotel and says she was able to do the job of anyone who was absent. She admits that in this respect her background in psychology is an asset. It's certainly easier managing people who are not one's neighbors, she says in relation to her experience in Neve Ilan, where all hotel staff working with her or for her "were my next door neighbors." If there was any kind of disagreement on a social level, its repercussions were felt within the hotel, a factor detrimental to an efficient operation. Thus a lot of decisions were taken by consensus - but it was Goldberg who bore the responsibility. One of the highlights of her job is meeting people from all over the world and from many walks of life. Another is that it's a neverending learning experience - she has learned about construction, marketing, cooking, the intricacies of kashrut, finances and many other aspects of hotel management. Her training as a psychologist comes in handy not only with regard to her staff but also hotel guests who may have the strangest complaints and have to be placated. She also is faced with the unique situation of the Israeli hotel industry probably having more ups and downs than in other countries. Goldberg can remember several times in which it looked as if business was on an upwards curve when something related to the security situation, like the outbreak of the intifada, would set off a wave of cancellations. This is what happened in the immediate aftermath of the war in Lebanon but the situation today is more optimistic, she says. During the intifada, people not only cancelled but did not make future bookings. Now, although there have been a lot of cancellations this year, reservations for 2007 are in hand and continue to increase, she notes. Barring any major upheaval in the Middle East, 2007 will be a good year for tourism says Goldberg, who after two experiences of having to take in "refugees" is looking forward to the hotel being full of bona fide tourists. The Jerusalem Gate took in many of the evacuees from Gush Katif, and more recently people from the North who had fled from the threats of Katyushas to the safety of Jerusalem. One of Goldberg's projects is the of revamping the hotel's marketing because it wants to focus more on individual tourists rather than group tours as it did in the past. At sixty-something (she refuses to disclose her exact age), Goldberg is still bursting with energy and eagerly looks forward to each new day and the challenges it will bring. She intends to keep on working for a very long time. Retirement is something she doesn't think about. It's just a word in the dictionary.

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