Tour Guide or Professional Traveler?

In June 2021, I was thrilled to be able to “guide” my first group tour since COVID-19 spread around the globe, and was so happy to be on the road again. You see, I am addicted to this land of Israel – it sparks my imagination, and the people inspire me. It may get rough here at times, but the aftermath always brings a wave of new hope, a spirit of solidarity.

When I first got the call from Via Sabra about an upcoming solidarity mission, I was wearing my beekeeping jacket and checking in on the bees in my backyard. I found it hard to believe I finally had the opportunity to work with a group again! So, I took a quick shower, sat down at my desk, and dusted off all my books, maps, and educational tools that I use to tell the story of Israel.

The kettle squeaked. I made myself a cup of tea with verbena and sage leaves, and sat outside to enjoy the last of the cool night before the summer’s unforgiving humidity kicked in. As I tried to mentally prepare myself for needing to wear nice clothes to “guide” groups across the country again, my thoughts wandered to why  I am so passionate about this profession.

I’m not a big fan of the title of my profession – Tour Guide. I do not go on tours, and I definitely do not “guide” anyone. I’ll explain:

Photo credit: Adi Peretz

For me, there is a significant difference between touring vs traveling. I feel that when we tour, we remain in our comfort zone and stick to the itinerary. Often the goal of a tour is to hit many sites, hear the facts and rush back to the bus without disrupting the itinerary. Traveling, however, is vastly different. If we allow ourselves to go out of our comfort zone, if we are open minded and curious, then we can start to travel.

So how is traveling different from touring? When we travel, we are not rushing to tick off items on a checklist. With travel, less is more: traveling incorporates a diverse range of meaningful experiences. In a world of screens, we are often disconnected from our immediate surroundings. Traveling, I believe, helps us re-connect and gives us context for the social and cultural histories of the people and places we visit. Travel is sensory – using smell, hear, touch, taste: all of your senses are working full-time. Imagine sitting under an oak tree, gazing at the surroundings of gently sloping vineyards and drinking a glass of wine with the wine maker. Compare this scene with that of a typical group tour of a winery’s visitor center.

I travel with my groups and attempt to unfold the complex story of my homeland. Instead of following cookie-cutter itineraries, I go on a journey of asking questions, and experiencing things hands-on. I try to listen to every voice I come across. Israel is so diverse, that its people continually surprise me. It is a nation rich in paradox, spirituality, and entrepreneurship. My office is this entire land – from the river to the sea and every place in between. It is a tiny piece of land, yet so rich in traditions, religions, cuisine, and people.

Careful not to whitewash, I try to expose the dirty laundry of history and politics as well as the glittering successes. I am always on the lookout for spontaneous encounters with interesting individuals who can provide a glimpse into the daily lives of people whose reality significantly differs from our own. Traveling is essential to breaking down barriers and building bridges between communities. Traveling with an open mind helps us fight our natural instinct to be suspicious of ‘others’ and gives each one of us the power to expel any prejudices we might have.

Hip-hop dance lesson

A few years ago, while I was educating a group in the Old City of Jerusalem, I noticed a hip-hop dancing lesson taking place inside a large underground room in the Muslim quarter. Arab kids – boys and girls – dancing hip-hop meters away from the Temple Mount? Fascinated, I knocked on the door and asked if the group could share in this experience. The choreographer looked worried, but then gave me a quick but hidden smile. “Yalla, come in quickly before I regret my decision.”

These types of unique insights into the daily lives of local people are what brings joy to my work. Although I have walked so many times through the cobbled lanes of the Old City, whenever I pass through these ancient thoroughfares, I’m always thirsty for new experiences, eager to learn and grow.

Later that day, one of the members of my group whispered to me “You’re a good door-opener”. I smiled. That is what I love doing – catching experiences and sharing my beloved yet complicated Israel with my fellow travelers.

I call myself an educator, yet that title worries me. It also carries the obligation of educating myself, constantly. During the years of working with many different Jewish congregations, I met a brilliant reform rabbi whom I simply adore. This rabbi is my educational mentor. Leading several trips to Israel together, I learned that leading is best done from behind, making others the center of attention and empowering them to learn from their experiences. Traveling with kids is when this happens so easily if the setting is right. Kids thrive on experiences; they are driven by a natural, uninhibited curiosity. Traveling for them is a playground of independence and delivers the best “lessons” they will ever get.

A lot has changed in Israel during the pandemic. Four Muslim countries normalized their relations with us, turning Israel into a financial and transportation hub. Though Israel is still healing from the last outbreak of violence, I feel hopeful. The several modern tribes who live on this land will just have to learn to mutually respect each other and share this precious space. As tourism slowly returns, I believe it will play an important role in not only helping to bridge the cultural divides, but increasing Israel’s international connections, which can bring more business and cultural collaborations in the long term.

Travelers frequently ask me “will there ever be peace in this region?” to which I almost always answer  “the more of us who travel, the closer we’ll get to peace.”

Come to Israel, we want to travel with you.

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