Israeli Tour Guides Got Crushed by COVID. Now They're Reinventing Themselves

When the pandemic decimated their industry, many tour guides had to find new ways of paying the bills. Now, some may never return to the old job

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Clockwise from top left: Hanna Griguer, James McKeever, Shelly Eshkoli and Eliav Kapusta.
Clockwise from top left: Hanna Griguer, James McKeever, Shelly Eshkoli and Eliav Kapusta.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg, Gil Eliahu, Ilan Assayag
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Their days used to consist of guiding tourists around Jerusalem’s holy sites, taking them up Masada and down to the Dead Sea, showing them around the Sea of Galilee, and leading them through Israel’s storied markets and archaeological sites.

They kept long hours, in a job that required lots of walking and even more talking. But the work was gratifying. Many, in fact, considered it a privilege to be able to earn their livelihood showing off Israel’s national treasures to visitors from abroad.

And then, suddenly, it all came to a crashing halt.

Of all the professions in Israel affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, tour-guiding was arguably the hardest hit. Indeed, the closure of borders to foreigners was among the first measures taken by the Israeli government. With some exceptions here and there, that ban remained in effect from March 2020 until the beginning of this month.

Its effect was all the more devastating given that tourism to Israel had hit an all-time high in 2019, with over 4.5 million foreigners visiting the country in the year preceding the coronavirus. According to Michael “Miki” Malka, chairman of the Israel Tourist Guide Association, about 1 million of those visitors used tour-guiding services during their stay.

If that weren’t enough, in recent months the government has cut off unemployment and other benefits introduced early on in the pandemic to Israel’s 7,000 certified tour guides, leaving many in dire financial straits.

Though tourism to Israel officially reopened earlier this month, it is subject to a long list of rules and restrictions. When it comes to tourists traveling in organized groups, only 2,000 are allowed to enter the country every day. As long as this quota remains in effect, the association estimates that barely 10 percent of the licensed tour guides in Israel will have full-time work. And that’s assuming the quota is filled, which is far from certain.

“Many tour operators abroad say they’re afraid to bring groups, having already lost so much money because of all the times they’ve been forced to cancel trips over changes in the rules,” says Adrian Weisberg, a veteran tour guide who, apart from nine days in July, has been out of work for more than a year and a half.

Many Israeli tour guides share his pessimism and believe it will take several years until the industry is back on its feet. Unable to rely any longer on government assistance, many have reached the conclusion that they have no choice but to reinvent themselves.

A few tourists visiting the Temple Mount in Jerusalem earlier this month. Credit: Emil Salman

For some, there has been a silver lining in this crisis because it has given them time to pursue other interests and passions. Naomi Ehrlich Kuperman, for example, is finally putting into action plans for a long-awaited career change. She worked as a tour guide for nearly 40 years, mainly with English-speaking and German-speaking groups, but in recent years started imagining a different role for herself.

“Having lost both a child and a spouse, I am familiar with grief, and I thought I might be able to help others who have lost loved ones,” says the 68-year-old Jerusalemite. Last year, she enrolled in a training program for life coaches. “Suddenly, I had time available to do something like this,” she notes.

Until she gets her new business off the ground, Ehrlich Kuperman says she plans to continue earning her living doing something else that also represents a bit of a career change for her: leading Iocal tour groups. “Me? Work with Israelis? I would have thought you were crazy if you told me I’d ever be doing that,” she says. “But you know what? It has its advantages. The tours are much shorter when you do them with locals and, therefore, not as tiring.”

Does she eventually hope to go back to leading groups from abroad? “Certainly not with the intensity I used to,” Ehrlich Kuperman responds. “I’ve been there and done that, as they say, and am now ready for new challenges.”

Author, author

Before COVID-19 struck, Shelly Eshkoli, 45, had specialized in guiding VIPs, bloggers and journalists, and often received referrals from the Jerusalem municipality. As a Bible scholar, she says she always made a point of weaving the ancient texts into her tours, especially when they included references to women.

Shelly Eshkoli. From tour guide to author. Credit: Ilan Assayag

“We know so little about women in the Bible because they hardly get mentioned,” she says. “This was my way of correcting that wrong.”

Eshkoli loved her work, but for years had been itching to write a book about those biblical women overlooked by history. It took a pandemic to give her the opportunity.

“During the first lockdown, I typed up all my notes from talks I’d given over the years, and by the third lockdown I had a 300-page book ready to be published,” says Eshkoli, who lives in an agricultural community not far from Jerusalem. Her book, as yet only available in Hebrew, focuses on 10 women whose stories have been “erased” from the Bible.

Amit Grinfeld also took advantage of his time off from guiding to dive into a writing project that had been simmering on the back burner for quite a while.

“One Jerusalem Stone,” his recently published book (also only available in Hebrew) documents the history of the Holy City through the perspective of a single stone that witnessed all the key events through the ages. “It was a project that has been in my head and heart for a very long time,” says the 40-year-old tour guide who specializes in pilgrimage groups.

Amit Grinfeld, author of "One Jerusalem Stone."Credit: Ilan Assayag

While it has been good for his soul, this creative endeavor has yet to bring in any significant income. So meanwhile, to help support his wife and four children, Grinfeld has joined the family business – taking it in a new and unforeseen direction. During the pandemic, he launched what he describes as a “door-to-door” delivery business of olive oil, honey and wine produced on the family farm in Kfar Bilu, a moshav in central Israel. The deliveries, done around the country, have helped drive up sales.

“It hasn’t made me rich, but it definitely helps pay the rent,” Grinfeld says.

Old skills, new challenges

Some tour guides were fortunate enough to be able to fall back on skills they had honed in earlier stages of their lives – before they were thinking about careers.

Matthew Churchill, for instance, has been working as a server at a popular Jerusalem steakhouse. “When the pandemic started, I was initially optimistic and thought I’d be able to get back to work in tourism pretty soon,” says the 42-year-old American immigrant, who began his guiding career leading free walking tours of Jerusalem before transitioning into the Christian pilgrimage market.

“But when my unemployment money ran out, and one trip after another was getting canceled, I had a wake-up call and realized I had better start looking for something else to do.”

As a college student, he had earned money on the side waiting tables, “and it was something I enjoyed doing,” Churchill recounts.

Earlier this month, he welcomed his first group of tourists in more than a year and a half. He decided, however, that it was not yet time to quit his restaurant job. “My next group will only be arriving in February, so I need a way to make ends meet until then,” he explains.

Before joining the army, Eliav Kapusta earned money doing odd jobs at a hotel. He was able to put some of the manual labor skills he acquired back then to good use when he lost all his tour-guiding work during the pandemic. After a short stint as a mover, he now works in home repairs.

Eliav Kapusta, now working in home repairs.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Asked if and when he plans to get back to his tour-guiding work, the 31-year-old, who recently became a father for the first time, responds: “I’ve got a group coming in January, but I’m not holding my breath. I was also supposed to have groups in August, September, October and November – and they were all canceled.”

Hanna Griguer worked for more than five years as a French-speaking guide. She especially loved leading groups from Taglit-Birthright, the organization that brings young Jewish adults on free, 10-day trips to Israel. “For me, it wasn’t just work but a calling,” she says.

When she had to start looking for other work, says Griguer, teaching seemed like a natural option. “Both professions require you to be good at imparting knowledge,” she explains.

Griguer, 28, recently began working at a school in Mevasseret Zion, a suburb of Jerusalem, where she teaches classes in animal welfare and agriculture to first- through fifth-graders. “You could say that my degree in biology is finally coming in handy,” she notes.

Hanna Griguer, who now teaches classes in animal welfare and agriculture at a school near Jerusalem.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Shmuel Tzarfati, 49, considers himself lucky. He was a driving instructor before he became a tour guide, and when the pandemic struck he was able to fall back on his other area of expertise.

“Many of my tour guide friends tell me it was smart of me not to put all my eggs in one basket,” says Tzarfati, who lives in Mevasseret Zion and teaches driving in Jerusalem. “Not that I had any idea that our profession would be decimated like this.”

For British-born James McKeever, 33, carpentry had long been a hobby. Now it’s become his full-time job.

“Once I realized this crisis wasn’t going away soon, I had to starting thinking about something else I could do,” he says. His new carpentry business, which specializes in furniture and playground sets, was set up on the grounds of his home at Kibbutz Ein Gev, northern Israel.

What he loves most about his new venture is that it gives him more time with his family. “I enjoyed guiding, that was my profession. But it’s gone, at least until it comes back,” says McKeever, who worked as a guide for five years before the coronavirus struck. “In the meantime, I’m going to operate under the assumption that it’s not coming back in the foreseeable future and enjoy my time with my two little girls.”

James McKeever, who is now working from his backyard as a carpenter.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Virtual Gaza tour

Itamar Ben-David, 37, counts himself among the fortunate few who never really had to leave tour guiding: he simply took it to another platform. Since March 2020, Ben-David has led 350 virtual tours of Israel for a total of 20,000 online participants – who have been checking in from places as far away as Indonesia, Australia and California. He and his business partner have already trained 350 Israeli guides in this up-and-coming field.

Among the advantages of virtual tours, says Ben-David, is that he can go beyond his natural terrain.

“I’ve already developed a virtual tour based on Google Earth that tells the story of my family’s aliyah from Morocco to Israel and a full tour of the Gaza Strip – something tourists normally wouldn’t be able to see,” he says.

Itamar Ben-David. His tour guides have entered the digital realm.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Ben-David doesn’t see the industry returning to its pre-COVID levels anytime soon. “Besides a trickle of businesspeople and maybe a group or two, I’m not counting on any incoming tourism during 2022,” he says. “For me, the only business will be from virtual tourism and guiding Israeli groups.”

Like Ben-David, Tisha Michelle also managed to find work in the tourism industry – but she had to go very far away to do that.

When Israel entered its first lockdown in March 2020, she found herself on one of the last flights out of the country. “My daughter was in the States recovering from an accident, and I needed to go see her,” recounts Michelle, who has been guiding Christian groups for nearly 30 years. “I was taking my group back to the airport, and my husband called me and said I should just get on the flight with them because it didn’t look like there were going to be more flights out of Israel.”

Michelle, who lives in a small community in northern Israel, boarded that flight, and a few months later her husband joined her in the United States. They drove cross-country from California, where their daughter was located, to Florida – “one of the only places in the world that was still open to tourism,” as Michelle describes it. There, on the state’s northwestern coast, they established a brand new business: building bonfires on the beach.

Tisha Michelle, on the beach in Florida.Credit: Tisha Michelle

She returned to Israel just a few weeks ago and already has a few tour groups lined up. My heart was always here, so I knew I’d be back,” she says.

Tour-guiding, Michelle adds, is part of her DNA.

“My mother was one of the pioneers of Christian tourism to Israel back in 1968,” she says. “As a little girl, I’d often join her and her groups, so you could say I’ve been on tour my entire life.”

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