Israel's frustrated, out of work tour guides try to find way forward

'We lost our living, but we are also losing a part of our identity.'

 TIME TO hang up the hiking boots? (photo credit: Joanna Nix-Walkup/Unsplash)
TIME TO hang up the hiking boots?
(photo credit: Joanna Nix-Walkup/Unsplash)

“My wife and I sat down in December 2019,” recalls Ed Snitkoff, a veteran Jerusalem-based tour guide. “We were trying to figure out how we were going to clean for Passover, because I was so busy. I didn’t have a free day until the end of August. It was crazy. It was more work than you could possibly handle.”

The year 2019 was a record year for Israeli tourism. More than 4.5 million tourists visited the country, a 10% increase from the previous year.

The cover of the February 2020 issue of the trade publication Israel Travel News reflected the year’s accomplishments and the promise of an even better future. “Israel welcomed over 4.5 million tourists last year. Now, it anticipates an even better tourism future. What does Israel’s success in 2019 portend for 2020?”

Neither Snitkoff nor the author of that optimistic magazine cover headline could have predicted the arrival of a worldwide pandemic that would cause major upheavals, limit travel, and derail the Israeli tourism industry for the next two years. 

Israel closed its skies to foreign tourism in March 2020, reopened briefly in early November 2021, before closing the skies once again. In January 2022, the country officially reopened once again. The government provided unemployment benefits and grants, but those benefits ended several months ago. Recently, the Finance Ministry began offering NIS 30,000 toward training for tour guides who choose to switch to another line of work. 

 ED SNITKOFF in Jerusalem. (credit: Ed Snitkoff) ED SNITKOFF in Jerusalem. (credit: Ed Snitkoff)

Born in New York, Snitkoff served as a congregational rabbi in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, before making aliyah in 1992 to Kibbutz Lavi in northern Israel. The kibbutz sent him to the tour guide course given in Tiberias, and Snitkoff conducted tours for the kibbutz hotel and made contacts with various tour companies.

After leaving the kibbutz in 2000, Snitkoff decided to become an independent tour guide, and he and his family moved to Jerusalem.

The Second Intifada, which began in September of that year, intervened, and tourist traffic to Israel dropped off.

Snitkoff changed course, working for Young Judaea and the Jewish Agency, before becoming the director of the Ramah Israel Seminar, a six-week travel program designed for high school seniors from the Ramah overnight camps in North America. Snitkoff held that position from 2007 until 2018.

In 2018, Snitkoff again decided to return to guiding tours full-time. He was busy and successful until the pandemic hit.

“If you want to know when not to go into guiding full-time, look at my career,” he says wryly. “Right before the end of the Second Intifada. And now.”

For Snitkoff, March 15, 2020, was the day that everything stopped. “I remember that day very well. It was a Sunday. At nine o’clock in the morning, I got an email from the Ministry of Tourism saying that tourism is now over. The email read, ‘If you have tourists in the country, get them out as fast as possible.’ By that time, most guides didn’t have any people in Israel, because it was a process where people realized that they had to get out.

“I was with a family from Chicago that was very adventurous that didn’t want to leave. I went to Tel Aviv to meet with them. The hotel told them to have all their bags packed in 10 minutes because they might have to close the hotel.”

Snitkoff volunteered to drive the family to Jerusalem and had arranged for them to stay at a friend’s empty apartment until they could arrange tickets to fly home.

“I said, ‘Don’t panic. If worse comes to worst, I’ll put you in my car, and I’ll take you to Jerusalem and put you in this apartment. You’re not alone.’ I’m the only person in the country they know. I’ve been their guide for the past week, and it was a terrible feeling. I felt like the government really abandoned us. Any guide that had people in the country on March 15 was totally alone.”

A photo of Snitkoff from his website shows him sporting a trim beard, addressing tourists animatedly. Throughout his career guiding visitors to Israel, he has worked with individuals, family groups, and synagogue and church groups. “One of the things that I enjoyed very much is being an interpreter of Judaism for Christians, to point out to Christians the Jewish roots of their faith. That’s very meaningful.”

Snitkoff, now 64, still smiles throughout our Zoom interview, but his beard is now bushy and a bit unruly, though he says he will soon have it trimmed. In the past two years, he has led exactly one tour group. “I took a group from Ramah up to Safed. I took them for one day.” 

He is frustrated, and when he expresses this in connection with the government, his long beard gives him the air of a biblical prophet reprimanding his people – in this case, the government’s policies on allowing tourists to enter the country.

“What’s frustrating,” he explains, “is that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of good thinking that goes into the banning of tourists. For most of this time, Israelis could go anywhere they wanted if they were vaccinated, with the same germs that any tourist would come back with if they were also vaccinated. It just doesn’t make any sense.

“What I think is most disheartening to those of us in the tourist industry is why? Why do the Miss Universes and all of the camera crews come with all of this stuff happening all around us? If you’re a tourist group, you can’t come, and then they have all kinds of restrictions. It’s unfathomable how the government is treating tour guides and anyone who works in tourism.”

How has Snitkoff filled his days since March 2020? “I’ve been studying. I’ve been reading, I’ve been playing with my grandchildren a lot more.

“I think that I see myself as one of the fortunate people, that this happened at this stage in life. The first time it happened, in the Second Intifada, I was younger. I was in my early 40s, and I was able to find employment quickly. For the next 18 years, I worked in educational tourism, but in different ways, mostly administration and educational planning, and guiding part-time. But when something like this happens, at my age, you start thinking about other things.”

Snitkoff, who had planned on working full-time until age 70, took his pension seven years earlier than planned.

“This means that for the rest of my life, I’m going to have to live on a much lower income than I would have if I had gone according to my plan, but I’m lucky. I’m not complaining.”

He says that there are many unemployed tour guides in their 40s, 50s and 60s who did not plan for their future and are in difficult economic straits. “My heart goes out to people who still have kids at home, people who still have major financial obligations.” 

Snitkoff misses the work and the income but says there has been a bit of an upside to two years of idleness. “It helped me set my priorities straight. You were going along the path of working your tuchus off until you’re in your 70s, and then, all of a sudden, I had nothing. And wow, how much fun it is to spend days with grandchildren and with my wife, who also recently retired. I’m not sure I would have reached these conclusions if this hadn’t happened.

“Even when tourism comes back, my dream is to guide just a couple of days a week. I don’t envision myself ever going back to full-time guiding. I’m very, very lucky. But what about younger guides with kids at home or people for whom this was their only option?”

 TOUR GUIDES: Eli Ilan at the Tower of David. (credit: RICKY RACHMAN) TOUR GUIDES: Eli Ilan at the Tower of David. (credit: RICKY RACHMAN)

ELI ILAN, 38, is one of those younger tour guides. Born and raised in Jerusalem, he worked for the Jewish Agency, serving as an emissary for the organization at San Diego State University. He explains how he became interested in becoming a tour guide. 

“Part of my job,” he says, “was recruiting students to come on Birthright. I was staffing those trips. I came to Israel, and I saw what the tour guides were doing, and I said, this is what I want to do. I can do better than these guys.” 

After his permanent return from the United States, he studied at the Tourism Ministry’s tour guide school in Jerusalem and became a licensed tour guide in 2016.

Like Snitkoff, he has been out of work for two years. During this time, he wrote materials for the Tower of David Museum, which he says has helped.

Together with friends, he started RUN JLM, which provides running tours of Jerusalem by running guides, who are also professional tour guides.

“We started it as something for incoming tourism,” he explains, “for people who come and want to have their morning workout combined with a guided tour.” Since tourists stopped coming, he says, it has been reorganized for running groups throughout Israel that can’t run elsewhere in the world. 

Ilan, who led a Birthright tour this past summer, has spent much of his time on personal and professional development since tourism ceased. He became a personal life coach and began studying for a master’s degree at the Open University.

He tried shifting the focus of his touring, directed to Israelis living in the country. “It’s very hard to make a living this way,” he says, “because there are plenty of guides who guide only Israelis, and now all the tour guides are trying to fit into the same smaller market.”

The closing of Israel’s borders to tourists has taken a financial and an emotional toll, he says. “First of all, we lost our living,” Ilan points out. “But we are also losing a part of our identity. We tell the story of Israel to people from all over the world. This is a type of shlihut or mission for us.”

At this point, Ilan is actively exploring switching to a new line of work. “It’s really sad, and I feel coerced to make this choice. I have to make a living and support myself and my future family. We didn’t make all the money that we could in this business, and we still have all the big expenses of life and buying a house and having kids, and all of that is still for us. So it’s even more discouraging in a way.”

 DANIEL JACOB leads a jeep tour to the Monastery of Marsabah in the Judean desert. (credit: Daniel Jacob) DANIEL JACOB leads a jeep tour to the Monastery of Marsabah in the Judean desert. (credit: Daniel Jacob)

DANIEL JACOB, 42, has been a tour guide since completing his IDF service.

“All my life, I wanted to be a tour guide,” he says.

Jacob, who lives in Kfar Adumim, worked as a full-time tour guide until the pandemic hit. Since March 2020, he has led two tours, both in 2021. Government assistance ended in June 2021, and he has been working as the head of security in Kfar Adumim and working on community projects.

“I loved my work until two years ago,” says Jacob. He adds that the tourism sector was the only area of the economy that was completely shut down. “We want to work, but the government shut down incoming tourism.” Though Israel has officially opened once again to foreign tourists, he says that it will take quite a while until tourism can resume at a normal pace. 

“[Finance Minister] Avigdor Liberman doesn’t know how much money he is losing for the country by shutting down tourism. He should be doing everything he can to open up the borders, let the groups come in – of course, with supervision, and check them, and have tourism continuing.”

Jacob points out that the value of tourists coming to Israel is more than a dollars-and-cents proposition. “We do amazing public relations for the country, especially in times of war and during political situations. When people go back, they become the ambassadors to their homeland.”

Jacob has conducted virtual tours of Israel since the pandemic, but is skeptical of their overall efficacy. “You have to feel, walk and touch. The more you walk, the more you feel, the more you are connected to the country. You can’t teach Israel without seeing it.”

Despite the financial hardships, Jacob is anxious to return to leading tours. “The second I can, I will return to it,” he says. 

 CHAIM FRIEDMAN at the nearly empty Sherover Promenade, Jerusalem. (credit: Chaim Friedman) CHAIM FRIEDMAN at the nearly empty Sherover Promenade, Jerusalem. (credit: Chaim Friedman)

UNLIKE SNITKOFF, Ilan, and Jacob, all of whom became tour guides early in their careers, Renee Halpert and Chaim Friedman, both from Beit Shemesh, became tour guides later in life.

Halpert, 59, who hails from Vancouver, British Columbia, was a technical writer and technical trainer in the US and Israel.

In 2011, she enrolled in the tour guide course at the now-defunct Lander Institute and completed the course in 2013. She says that she was always impressed with tour guides from her visits to Israel, but did not consider switching careers while her children were young. After her youngest child reached high school, Halpert applied to the tour guide course and began her studies. 

“Being a guide and educator fuses my passion for Israeli history and culture, love of Jewish learning, enthusiasm for people, and academic curiosity. This country is so fascinating, and there’s so much to learn about everything that is Israel – it’s a bit of an addiction,” confesses Halpert. 

Until March 2020, Halpert had experienced a successful career as a guide, leading tours for Federation leadership missions, Birthright tours, and individuals and families.

On March 9, 2020, everything stopped when she received two phone calls, which canceled the next four months of her work.

Since then, Halpert has led a total of three Birthright tours. She has created her own private tours in English, many of which were canceled due to one lockdown or another. She has also offered virtual tours to North American audiences via the Internet, and in-person tours for English-speakers in Israel.

With the financial support that the government provided for tour guides and the tours that she was planning on leading in October and December of 2021, she was hopeful that things were looking up. However, when Israel closed itself to foreign tourists in November, those tours were canceled as well.

She cautions that the collapse of tourism and the effect that it has had on tour guides “is no longer just about the physical health, but there’s a mental health issue for the people who were trying to ride this wave out.

“The hardest part,” she says, “is that a day or two after the closures, we have the attitude of a government which we felt was extremely demeaning in the sense of ‘OK, tour guides and tour operators can go get new jobs.’ I understand. In theory, if you don’t have an economy for tourism, retrain. Friends of mine who are in their 30s and 40s with young children have great opportunities to be retrained, depending on their skill sets.”

However, the situation is far different for Halpert, who retrained in the middle of her career to become a tour guide, and who left other industries which are no longer as relevant. “Given my age, it’s not so easy to retrain and start something else. I’ve invested not only in training for my profession as a tour guide but running a business.”

When she isn’t leading an occasional virtual or local tour, Halpert has been taking additional courses in her field. She returned to school and is studying at Bar-Ilan University in a master’s program in Land of Israel studies and archaeology, in a track for tour guides and educators.

Chuckling, Halpert calls her return to school a substitute for therapy and says that it keeps her in a loop of activity, learning something that is valuable for her field.

“We are still hopeful, but we’re disheartened,” she says. There’s a lot of anger in the last few weeks because we really feel that the rug was pulled out from underneath us.”

FRIEDMAN, 63, made aliyah in 1995, and despite working in the computer field for 25 years, he maintains that “it was always my dream to become a tour guide and learn more about the Land of Israel.” Friedman managed to fulfill his dream, taking the tour guide course in 2006 and 2007. 

A genial optimist with a warm smile, Friedman says, “It was the most fantastic course I ever took in my life. It was a dream course.”

When Israel’s skies were open, Friedman guided a few tours, but for the most part, things have been quiet. As with most tour guides, the operative word Friedman uses is “frustration.” Nevertheless, he adds, “I do have to thank the government for helping us out with the various unemployment benefits and grants.” 

Friedman would like the government to continue some type of support so that tour guides don’t have to look for other types of work, because, as he says, “We just can’t support ourselves this way.” 

Friedman is handy and resourceful, and during this period of forced idleness, he has been fixing neighbors’ screens, window blinds, and cleaning, as well as volunteering.

An avid cyclist, Friedman has volunteered with Etgarim, a group that takes challenged youngsters on bike rides throughout the country.

Like his counterpart Snitkoff, he has also found great satisfaction in the time he has been able to spend with his family. “There is a lot of family time, and it is important, and I am able to devote more time to my family – aged parents, children, grandchildren. It is a time I will cherish – the extra time I have been spending with family.”

Financially, Friedman says, he is fortunate that, over the years, he was able to save for retirement and has enough money to finish the month.

“Being a tour guide is a very tough business,” he says. It’s an enjoyable business, but it’s very hard to make a living as a tour guide in Israel, even in the best of times. To have a pandemic on top of it with no work for a few years is very, very hard, and then, of course, you reach a position where you say, maybe I should be doing some other type of work in order to have consistent income.”

Friedman is unsure of the future, with threats of corona and new mutations. “Once you’ve hit corona wave No. 5, there could be waves 6, 7, 8 and 9, with no end in sight,” he says.

He is also skeptical about retraining and looking into another line of work. “We’ve reached the age that even if we do find another skill, who’s going to hire us? People want the younger crowd. A lot of Anglo tour guides have reached a certain age where we’re overqualified in a way in certain areas. I would like to continue doing what I’m doing.”

Pivoting

Despite the inactivity, many tour guides in Israel are attempting to find new niches with which they can not only stay in business but continue guiding and educating about the Land of Israel.

Debbie Ziering and Leelah Gitler, neighbors in Ra’anana and licensed tour guides, graduated from tour guide school in January 2020, just as the pandemic was making its way around the world – hardly an auspicious time to begin leading tours in Israel. Yet the two utilized the very fact that children were out of school to create a yearlong program that helps Ra’anana teens and young adults discover the wonders of Israel.

In the summer of 2020, parents realized that summer camps would not be opening. Ziering and Gitler decided to take advantage of the opportunity to fill the void with meaningful programming. During the three days before Tisha Be’av, the two created a program called Jerusalem for All Time, which covered the history of Jerusalem from its founding by King David through the periods of the First and Second Temples.

“The idea was to get them out into the fresh air and off their computers and their screens,” says Gitler. The guides accompanied 32 children on a tour of sites in Jerusalem, from the City of David (Ir David) to the Ramparts Walk in Jerusalem. 

Ziering and Gitler decided to continue their tours for kids into the 2020-21 school year. They designed a yearlong program titled “Discovering the land through the Bible.” Over the course of that year, the two took anywhere between 25-40 seventh and eighth grade students in Ra’anana on a series of 12 tours across the country and three tours for adults. The tours are held during the week and occasionally on Friday.

Gitler adds that the parents who have enrolled their children in their tours don’t mind if they miss an occasional day of school to go on tour. Some of our tours are on school days, and some are on Fridays when they don’t have school.

“I think that one of the reasons that parents are willing to let their children miss school is because we proved ourselves last year,” says Gitler. “Parents and kids have bought into it, and they’re willing to miss a day a month or every six weeks. They know that they’re not in school, but they’re getting an education outside of school.”

This year, they are repeating the program with a new group of students in Ra’anana. The first group of students have joined for a second year, which focuses on the return of the Jewish people to Israel during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

Explains Gitler, “We try and balance the day between educational content and coupled with a hike or caving or baking or swimming – some kind of hands-on activity; but for the educational content, we try to make it as fun and experiential as possible. Most of our trips have props and costumes. We have the kids dress up, and we dress up – a lot of role-playing, acting out the chapters in the Bible. We we want to encourage the kids to participate in the guiding, so it’s just not Debbie and me talking all day.” 

Ziering and Gitler say that they are building a new type of educational activity with a fresh and interesting curriculum. “We would like to expand, and we would like to do more groups for more cities and more seminaries. And I think in the future we will have time because we’ll have built something, so we’ll have a basis.”

Other tour guides are attempting to build a virtual type of tour for tourists who have been unable to visit Israel for the past two years. Just as meetings on Zoom have enabled businesses to stay on track, some envision virtual tourism as a way to maintain the connection with people interested in learning about the Holy Land. 

Onnie Schiffmiller moved to Israel 18 years ago and became a tour guide in 2011. A Ra’anana resident, she decided to attend tour guide school on a whim, after remarking that she should probably become a tour guide since she was always taking visiting family out and about.

“If I had known what was involved, I probably would have run the other way,” she chuckles. “But it was the best decision I ever made.” Schiffmiller particularly enjoyed leading multigenerational tours around Israel.

Like most other tour guides, her business fell apart when corona arrived. “The business was really flourishing,” she recalls wistfully, “because, in 2019, I was all over the country, all the time.”

Peter Abelow made aliyah to Efrat in 1990 and became a tour guide in 1991. He worked as a full-time tour guide for 18 years before becoming a director at Keshet Educational Journeys, which organizes travel programs in Israel and around the world. He retired from Keshet in 2017 and resumed working as a private tour guide until the pandemic came.

“In March or April 2020,” he recalls, “an idea began to germinate that this thing isn’t going away so fast, and perhaps we should try to create something else – an online alternative. If people can’t come to Israel, we’ll bring Israel to them.”

Abelow and Schiffmiller met in June 2020 to create a unique site. They decided to make a subscription-based site with a library of prerecorded tours that could be accessed 24/7 by virtual visitors from around the world. They also decided to create downloadable activity sheets for children for each tour, which could be printed. In addition, they added a live session with a tour guide each week, in which the guide discusses another aspect of that week’s prerecorded tours.

To date, Abelow and Schiffmiller have produced 70 prerecorded tours, and they add new ones each week.

Unlike some other virtual tours, their videos last approximately 15 minutes. “We realized that people were ‘Zoomed out,’ so we want to give them what we call edutainment,” Abelow explains. “We would learn something, have a little bit of fun, stay connected to Israel in a meaningful but comfortable way, but not feel like they were sitting down to a lecture.” 

Abelow and Schiffmiller see potential and value in virtual, prerecorded tours even after the pandemic ends. Some people cannot travel at all due to accessibility or age-related issues. They envision creating virtual video tours that could be used by people who cannot travel to engage with Israel regularly. Additionally, virtual travel videos, they say, could be used by people planning actual physical trips to plan their trips beforehand. 

Schiffmiller and Abelow say that they have outsourced some of the work on their videos to other guides who have been out of work to help provide them with an additional source of income.

Schiffmiller adds that the Moreshet Derech organization, which represents many of the currently licensed tour guides in Israel, has been proactive in fighting for rights for tour guides, helping them receive government subsidies, and doing whatever it can to help.

Chana Koren from Hashmonaim has been a tour guide for 15 years. When corona arrived, she taught math and Hebrew studies in a local school. She has also been studying ancient Greek at Bar-Ilan.

She has been active in Moreshet Derech, which was founded approximately seven years ago.

Koren explains that when the pandemic arrived and touring ceased, tour guides who received a set salary began receiving unemployment checks almost immediately. Those who were self-employed or received payment from overseas had to wait longer, and many encountered bureaucratic snafus.

In mid-March, Moreshet Derech opened a hotline to assist tour guides in receiving unemployment benefits and grants from the government. Moreshet Derech distributed food baskets to guides who are in difficult financial circumstances and has arranged protests to call attention to the plight of unemployed tour guides at Ben-Gurion Airport and the Knesset. “A lot of Knesset members are on our side,” she reports.

Snitkoff adds that a number of tour guides have created WhatsApp groups in which people are helping one another, with donations for those in need. “There’s one tour guide who opened up a WhatsApp group who has taken upon himself to help every single person who comes his way.”

What’s next?

On January 9, Israel once again officially opened the skies to vaccinated visitors. The Tourism Ministry opened the safe.israel.travel website, which proclaims, “Israel is open for vaccinated tourists!” According to the new regulations, all arrivals to Israel must take a PCR test at the airport and must quarantine for 24 hours or until they receive a negative result from the PCR test.

Will this lead to a new influx of tourists to Israel?

Halpert is skeptical. “I don’t see any immediate changes. Individuals can come in, but there are no formal groups arriving. At this point, it’s a combination of a lack of trust in the travel planning process, especially when the Israeli government has made last-minute closure decisions. Large numbers of people worldwide are still being affected by COVID and, of course, the economic stress that may have affected many potential tourists. Even cruise ships have decided that passengers may not hire private guides for land excursions but must go on their organized (capsule) tours. It will definitely take a while.”

Like Schiffmiller and Abelow, Halpert thinks that virtual tourism is gaining in popularity and will still be a useful platform for connecting people to Israel even when live tourism returns. She plans on conducting more virtual tours, with an emphasis on building a personal connection with participants and interacting with them during the discussion.

Koren concurs with Halpert’s endorsement and says that many virtual tours are being produced, and it is a good up-and-coming way to guide. She also agrees with Halpert’s caution that Israel will not suddenly become flooded with tourists.

“It will take a while,” she says. “Incoming tourism takes a long time to get back on its feet. People aren’t sitting, waiting with their suitcases, waiting to come. Sometimes it takes months and sometimes even years until people arrange a tour. All of these things take time, and it’s a lot of work.”

She adds that the various requirements for vaccinations add to the complexity and will prevent many from visiting. 

“Israel is the Holy Land,” says Koren. “There are over 1 billion people who understand and appreciate Israel for what it is. It’s the home of at least two of the monotheistic religions, and the third one also has some holy sites here. One billion people is a lot of people, so the potential is always going to be here, no matter what.” ■

Connect with the tour guides

Israel’s tour guides are ready to get back to work!

Following is a listing of the guides mentioned in this article with their contact information.