Israeli tour guide gives the low down on visiting Israel
By Stacey Dresner
One of the first people we met in Israel this summer on an El Al press trip was Israeli tour guide Michal Neumann who met us at Ben Gurion Airport, then proceeded to take us on an incredible seven-day tour of Israel.
Born and raised in Tel Aviv, Neumann had been an attorney for 25 years when she realized she wanted to, in her words, “do something for my soul.”
A world traveller – who has visited countless countries around the globe – and a lover of history, Neumann decided to combine her two favorite things to become a tour guide.
While showing us the sights – including popular sites like the Western Wall, Masada and the Dead Sea, as well as a few out-of-the-way spots we hadn’t been to before – Neumann shared her knowledge and insight, becoming our friend along the way.
We asked Neumann to tell us about her job as a tour guide and what it means to her to take visitors around her beloved Israel.
Q: Are you a life-long resident of Tel Aviv?
A: Yes, I was born and raised in Tel Aviv and lived here all my life, so I guess that makes me a life-long resident of Tel Aviv.
Q: Where did you go to university and what did you study?
A: I studied at the Tel-Aviv University, first for an LL.B (a law degree), and many years later for a Masters in history.
Q: Tell me about your career as a lawyer.
A: I worked as a lawyer for about 25 years, at various law firms. During the last ten years of my career as a lawyer I worked with family businesses, helping them through the transition stages from the first to the second generation. It was particularly interesting for me to see beyond the legal documents, into the people’s wishes and ambitions and the interaction within their families.
Q: How did you decide that you didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore and that you wanted to become a tour guide?
A: It was a gradual process. When I first became bored with my work, I decided to do something for my soul. I went back to the university and completed a Masters degree in history (and graduated “cum laude”). After I graduated, I heard about a course during which you go on a different tour every week. I decided to combine my two passions: traveling and history, and took the course, which turned out to be thrilling and extremely interesting. It was also a lot of fun. At the end of the two-year guiding course and after I passed the exams, I decided to become a tour guide.
My main motivation was, and still is, a strong passion to share my love for this country, which is usually portrayed so badly in the media. This is also why I love working with journalists. My best rewards are when non-Jewish journalists, for whom it is a first visit, tell me at the end of the tour that I have changed their point of view towards Israel and the challenges it faces.
Q: How do you become a guide in Israel?
A: The Tour Guiding course is a two-year course, given at various institutions throughout the country. I went to the one attached to the University of Haifa, and all are supervised by the Ministry of Tourism. At the end of the course there is a written exam given by the ministry, and if you pass that, you go through a 30-minute oral exam, during which you stand up and four examiners fire their questions at you. When you pass all that, you become a licensed tour guide.
Q: How long have you been a guide and how do you operate? Do you work for yourself or the Ministry of Tourism? What does it mean to be licensed by the Ministry of Tourism?
A: All guides in Israel must be licensed by the Ministry. It is a criminal offense to guide without a license. I have worked as a guide for four years. I am hired and employed by tour agencies and by the Ministry of Tourism on a tour-basis. Tour agencies hire my services when they receive a request from clients that want me to be their guide, or they approach me directly after previously having worked with me.
If you try to look me up on the net you will see that I don’t advertise anywhere, don’t use Facebook, nor other social networks. I believe that the best way for me to market myself is through satisfied clients. My reputation spreads word-to-mouth by people who experience my services.
Another option for guides is to drive a car or a van. This kind of work does not suit me, because I want to give my clients my undivided attention, without worrying about driving, traffic and most important – parking. Therefore I prefer to work with a professional driver.
Q: What are your favorite kinds of groups to work with – small private groups, or larger groups like Jewish Federations?
A: For me, it is the people that make the difference.
The sites and the sights are the same, but it is different for me each time because of the people I guide. I try to see each place through their eyes and share their experience. For me, the most important element is the bond that is formed with the clients.
I like working with small groups because it is more intimate and I get to know the people better.
Different groups are experiencing different things. A three-generation bar mitzvah tour group is completely different from a group of journalists and those are different from people who come on a “mission” focusing on an in-depth tour. I guess those are the most challenging because the people who come on a “mission” have been to Israel before, and I need to show them new aspects in which to look at and to appreciate some places that they have already seen.
Q: What are some of your own favorite cities and landmarks in Israel to show people and why?
A: I love to show people the beauty of this land and its diversity. I like to show them an oasis in the desert (like Ein Gedi), an archaeological site (like Caesarea or Acre), or enjoy the excitement of Tel Aviv-Jaffa with all it has to offer, and much more.
However, I feel that people are mostly moved by the different sights and sites in Jerusalem and I like to share this unique experience with them.
As a history buff, my personal favorites are archaeological sites where you can step back in time and picture life in this land as it was long before the air conditioner, running water and supermarkets.
Q: Why do you think it is important for people to have a guide show them around Israel as opposed to traveling around by themselves?
A: When you are shown around by a guide you get the full experience.
You can read a guidebook that will supply you with information about a certain place and its history, but a good guide will really make your experience a memorable one, focusing on the context that is missing from the books. A guidebook will give you facts but in order to really experience and understand the country and its people you need much more. You need to connect.
Only a tour guide can deliver the experience of visiting different sites as a part of a whole narrative, rather than a list of unrelated fragments of information.
A good tour guide will help you to experience Israel through your emotions, not only your intellect. A guide will give you first hand insight into the everyday life here for Israelis, confronted with all the challenges, hopes and fears that we have to cope with.
And last but not least: a good guide gets to know you and your interests, and when you are in a small group, can accommodate you accordingly.
Q: What was one of your best times guiding a group around? What was one of your worst?
A: It all boils down to the people. I had a wonderful time guiding a family that came here to have a bar mitzvah and the boy was on the autistic spectrum. That was the most emotional and unique bar mitzvah I had ever experienced.
Another was with a family whose nine-year-old daughter wrote a diary with drawings of her experiences while traveling in Israel. Upon her return, she sent me a copy of it, so I was able to relive the tour through her eyes. I will always cherish it.
I had another great experience when I took a mission on a tour of many military camps throughout the country and we focused on the geopolitical aspect, or when I was working with a small group of women journalists with whom I became friends, and many more.
My worst experiences were with people who were simply not interested in much, and brought with them to the tour tensions from their everyday life, so they were not open to really appreciate what they were seeing.
Q: If you could plan the best week-long trip around Israel for a group, what would it include?
A: First of all, I would advise people to come to Israel for more than a week, especially if they arrive after a trans-Atlantic flight.
Israel is very small – the size of New Jersey – but it has a lot to offer.
For a week-long first visit to Israel I would recommend the following:
First day: An early morning drive to Caesarea. From there drive north to Acre through Haifa. After visiting Acre drive to Safed, spending the night in the Galilee.
Second day: Drive further north to Kibbutz Misgav-Am or to the little town of Metula, which are right on the Lebanese border. From there drive to The Banias – the waterfall and the suspending bridge. From there, to the Golan Heights, to mount Ben-Tal, from which you can see the border with Syria. It is a good idea to incorporate a jeep-ride or a nature walk in the region.
Third day: Drive down to Beit-Shean. From there, go down the Jordan Valley to the Dead Sea to visit Ein-Gedi and Masada. Spend the night by the Dead Sea and enjoy the unique experience of floating in its water.
Fourth and fifth day: Jerusalem.
Sixth and seventh day: Travel through Ein-Karem to Tel Aviv-Jaffa, with its beautiful white-sand beaches and great night life.
This itinerary is very general. It leaves out completely the southern part of the country. It would obviously be a completely different itinerary for a family or for a Christian traveler.
Finally, a word of advice: if you can help it, try to avoid coming to Israel during the hot summer months!