Tower of goodwill

Time to spread her wings: Nirit Loftus (photo credit: TOWER OF DAVID)
Time to spread her wings: Nirit Loftus
(photo credit: TOWER OF DAVID)
We all make aliya for different reasons. Many come here infused with Zionist fervor, looking to make a home here no matter what, and trying to make a difference. Some initially find the social-cultural code discrepancies too tough to accommodate, and return whence they came, but others soldier on, mastering the language and going with the Middle Eastern flow.
Mark Barnett readily admits to still being driven by the ideals that brought him here 44 years ago, when he made aliya from Leicester, in the United Kingdom. A high-flying member of the local hi-tech industry, the Modi’in resident devotes one day a week to enlightening Israelis and visitors from all over the world about the history and mysteries of the Tower of David, and the Old City of Jerusalem.
In truth, Barnett, a granddad umpteen times over, did not come into his voluntary guide position as a novice.
“I have been at the Tower of David for a year. I did the course last summer, and I have been a volunteer at the Israel Museum for the last 11 years,” he notes.
Barnett got the notion to provide gratis services due to a change in his familial circumstances.
“I have four kids, I work in hi-tech, I do marketing communications and I am a consultant to different Israeli companies. Eleven years ago my first two children got married. I still had two more children to marry off, but I decided I needed something so that one day a week I wouldn’t work in hi-tech. After my children got married I didn’t need to earn so much,” he laughs. “I wanted to get away from the 24/7 pressures of hi-tech.”
The Israel Museum duly benefited from Barnett’s genial personality and ability to captivate an audience but, after 10 years there, he decided to broaden his volunteering horizons.
“I enjoyed the work at the Israel Museum, and they always have new exhibitions, but I wanted something else as well. Someone said I should go to the Tower of David. He said I would love it and that it was made for me. So I came to the Tower of David and I realized it was made for me.”
It was a whole new ball game for Barnett, and one with which he bonded easily.
“The Israel Museum is said to be one of the 10 most important museums in the world, in terms of its collections,” he says. “Here, it’s something very specific. It’s the story of Jerusalem and my wife is a Jerusalemite. I got married on Mount Zion and Jerusalem has always been close to my heart. The story of Jerusalem was made for me.”
Barnett feels the Tower of David museum offers new guiding possibilities.
“The fact that it is in the Citadel – and that is a story in itself – there is the whole story of Jerusalem here. That means you can create a narrative which is very exciting.”
The passion of ideology still burns strongly for Barnett. “I also seem my work at the Tower of David as a form of Zionism,” he declares. “That may seem corny, but I absolutely believe in it. I believe that bringing people here is an opportunity. You have 90 minutes to two hours, to tell people what Jerusalem is all about.”
Abu Tor resident Rivkah Frank is similarly fired up by her work at the museum, which sits cheek by jowl with Jaffa Gate. Frank made aliya from New Jersey 20 years ago and has been taking groups around the Tower of David for around seven years now.
“I left my place of employment and started looking around for something to do,” she explains. “I have always been interested in history. My original degree was in history, but after I got my bachelor’s I realized you couldn’t make a living from it.”
Frank may not been earning a crust from her voluntary activity at the museum but she is certainly enjoying the chance to flex her historical bent.
“When I was so-called free I decided to return to my first love,” she says.
She says there is one aspect of her work at the Tower of David that particular excites her.
“When you go up to the top of the walls you get a fantastic view of the Old City,” she enthuses. Frank may have been living in Jerusalem for “only” a couple of decades but she says her connection with the city began many years before that, when she came here to attend a young leadership program run by the Jewish Agency.
“The reason I guide here is because I feel it is important to share my love for Jerusalem and my knowledge of Jerusalem with people all over the world.”
Frank says she aims to open her audience’s eyes a little, and to leave them with a better understanding of Jerusalem.
“At least I hope so,” she laughs. “A successful tour, for me, is when everybody stays until the end of the tour, which almost always happens.”
Nirit Loftus lives just outside Jerusalem, in Mevaseret Zion, but says she feels a strong bond with Jerusalem and, in particular, with the Old City. The Israeli-born volunteer guide, whose husband hails from Canada, came across as a particularly serene character which, considering her main areas of interest – outside the Tower of David – is not surprising.
“When I turned 40 I felt I was at a crossroads,” she says. “Until then I had been very happy playing music and practicing yoga.” Her husband is an avid gypsy jazz jammer, and all three Loftus offspring are professional classical musicians.
Loftus felt it was time to spread her wings a little.
“I lived in an amazing place, and people would visit and I wouldn’t be able to enlighten them about Jerusalem. That wasn’t good. I decided I needed a change. It happened gradually, bit by bit.”
Eventually she found her way to the Tower of David, taking the volunteer guide course in 2009. This was after cutting her guiding teeth at the Bible Lands Museum and earning an Education Ministry tour guide certificate. It was while she was on the latter program that she discovered the Tower of David.
“We came here as part of the course and I was astounded by the place,” she recalls. “Its appearance, all these stones – they all have a story to tell.
Loftus has been telling those stories ever since. “I never get bored with this place,” she says. “There is always something to learn. I really feel privileged to volunteer here.” Dini Avraham is certainly happy to have the seasoned services of Barnett, Frank, Loftus et al.
“They are so devoted,” says the Tower of David director of education and training. “We have 25 volunteers. Most are past pension age. They are a very valuable resource for us.” Apparently, the oldest volunteer died last year at the age of 98, and was gainfully engaged as a Tower of David volunteer almost until the end. Currently, the most senior volunteer guide is 94.
Several moons ago there was an email that made the rounds – prior to the advent of social media – that sagely suggested that one should work as if money was no object. That tenet is well applied by the museum volunteers.
“They come here with love and are very much at ease,” Avraham smiles. “They are charming people, and provide a high quality service. We are fortunate to have them.”
For more information about the Tower of David: *2884 and