Jewish heritage tours in Israel, (of which most are bar/bat mitzvah tours), are a well-known and very popular way of visiting the Holy Land. The latest statistics show that tourism to Israel, especially Jewish heritage tours, are at an all-time high despite the regional security situation (which has never really been completely peaceful). No wonder then, that the top attractions and the most popular sites are fully booked. Sometimes months in advance.
“This type of trip should be a formative childhood memory, a memory that many choose to return and revisit, perhaps on several occasions during their lifetime. But each time you come back to Israel you can and should experience your trip in a completely new way. In a way which enables you to see the country as you’ve never seen it before”
Asaf made me this promise in our first interview, which I had scheduled on the back of rumours that he and his team were pioneering a new type of heritage tour experience. Back then I was sceptical, but decided it was worth exploring further.
What I didn’t know was that I wouldn’t have time to really dig into details in our first meeting. However, my curiosity was piqued and I asked to meet again.
This time, I went to meet Asaf and Adam in the Shin Tours Jerusalem offices, in order to hear exactly how they ensure that they deliver on their grand promises.
As in our previous meeting, Asaf, one of the partners in the company, greets me warmly. Casually dressed in a T-shirt and with a twinkle in his eye, he offers me a drink. A moment later, we’re sitting around a table and Adam, a travel consultant who specialises in Jewish heritage tours, joins us. As we sipped our coffee, the conversation began to flow.
To backtrack a moment: I first became interested in the story of Shin Tours when I kept hearing passionate recommendations about their services from colleagues and friends. And I couldn’t help but wonder: how did such a new company manage to become so successful in such a short space of time? Particularly in such a crowded market place: luxury tours in Israel.
“It started from my time as a tour guide,” explains Asaf. “I really enjoyed being out and about in our beautiful country, meeting interesting people, but became increasingly frustrated by the programmes I was being asked to guide. It was the same old recycled itineraries, no depth of experience. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t want to change careers – the working conditions were great; the compensation was more than adequate…but I was losing my passion. I knew that I could do something better. So, despite my lack of business experience, I decided to try and realise my vision and to found a company to change the game
“It wasn’t that I had a sudden epiphany,” he continues. “It was a gradual build-up of ideas. I kept guiding in different places around Israel, and imagining how it would be possible to make the experience at each site, well…an experience! Exciting, emotional, moving, memorable! And eventually the vision became about more than how to make a specific site special, but how to build an unforgettable overall tour experience.”
Interviewer: That sounds interesting. Can you give me an example?
“When Re’em (my co-founder) and I founded Shin Tours, we were sitting in our improvised office – the balcony of Re’em’s apartment with a view over the Jerusalem hills – and brainstormed for hours on how to make a trip here an incredible experience, and not just another tour. We came up with hundreds of ideas, among them the “soldier at the wall” encounter that we discussed last time we met. But that was just the beginning.
“At the end of the day, we got these amazing ideas from our clients. Because from day one, it was a huge priority for us to really listen to them and make their dreams come true.”
Interviewer: Can you give an example of a dream you made come true for one of your clients?
“One father contacted us – he was in a mixed marriage and felt that his kids were disconnected from their Judaism. He really wanted the trip to be an opportunity for them to connect and be inspired by Jewish history. Together, we decided to send the children a series of videos about Yoram Zamush, a hero of the Six Day War. In Jerusalem they made a presentation about what they had learned, and then were thrilled when Yoram showed up in person to wish them mazal tov. We also found the right rabbi for their ceremony who could help them connect to their heritage. The father couldn’t stop thanking us. It made me very emotional.
“On another occasion, we were contacted by some grandparents who wanted to create a deeply spiritual barmitzvah experience for their grandchildren. They didn’t know what they wanted exactly, but knew that it should be spiritual. We arranged a sunrise ceremony by Robinson’s Arch in Jerusalem, and everyone was deeply moved.”
Interviewer: Adam, how do you manage to learn these details – not everyone is able to articulate what they want or willing to share. What do they say to you?
“You’re right,” says Adam. “As with anything, many people don’t know exactly what they want, or even if they do, they don’t know how to articulate it. It’s our job to really understand the client, to get to know them beyond the pure details of specific sites they may want to see or hotels they would like to stay in. “I and my team really try to create a connection with the people who reach out to us, to understand them and all their family, their needs and interests. We ask specific questions to create a picture of everyone – whether it’s a particular passion for a specific place or subject, or maybe we need to take into account different stamina levels if it’s a multi-generational trip. “We then build an experience which can be a wonderful and personalised trip to Israel, but also an opportunity to bring the family together and strengthen familial ties. For us you can’t have one without the other.”
Interviewer: I understand – but this is all in the office. How do you make sure that things work as they should in the field?
Adam continues: “Perhaps the most important element in any trip is the tour guide. Our guides are part of the Shin Tours family, we choose them very carefully and they all undergo a rigorous training. But even then, not every guide is right for every trip. We carefully match our guides with our clients to make sure that personalities fit.
“Then, in the field, the guides help us bring our vision to life, through focusing on guiding as an experience and carefully sensing the group. Even the best-laid plans sometimes need to be tweaked and adjusted as circumstances change, and our guides are a vital part of making sure that our trips can remain dynamic and always be the best experience possible.”
I thank Asaf and Adam for their time, and the coffee, and leave them to continue their work. As I walk out of their office I realise that there really can be a huge difference in how a tour programme is built and then executed. It seems that I should start re-examining the itineraries we get for our family trips. On my way out I notice a collection of Shin Tours figurines lining the shelves of the office. Spotting my curious glance, Asaf smiles and explains:
“Each figurine represents a family which has become part of the extended family of Shin Tours. We really feel that we form a close relationship and bond with everyone that we bring here, and that they become part of our family. We see how happy they are with their experience and that they stay in touch, even returning to tour with us again. And from our point of view, our clients are vital to the success of the company. After all, a personal recommendation is the best way of us being able to bring more people for a unique experience in Israel”.
I enter the lift and can’t help but imagine what it would have been like for me to come to Israel for my barmitzvah as part of a Shin tours programme. To experience and connect to the land through incredible encounters, to have someone build a programme that was just right for me and my family. To form a life-long connection with the home of the Jewish people and to strengthen my Judaism overall.When I was barmitzvah a trip like this was beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, but if I could have done, I’d certainly have sent my parents a link to this example of a Shin Tours programme and said: “Mum, Dad – you see this? This is the kind of experience I’d love on my trip to Israel” . I can’t help but be a little envious of those for whom such an opportunity is possible.Click here to see an example of a Shin Tours custom-built Jewish heritage tour experience.