I recently received a question from a reader, Baruch, about the various courses for tour guides in Israel, and I felt it would be relevant to share my answers with all of you. Following my response, he also had some follow-up questions, which I will also share and answer here.
But let me preface what I write by saying that I don’t have that much knowledge of the other courses, other than mine. I know a bit about a few, and will try to give as much info as I have. But this is far from a comprehensive answer!
So here is what Baruch wrote to me:
I’ve checked out your blog some and wondered which program (in Hebrew or English and if it matters much) is the best for the Israeli guide course in Jerusalem and why…
1. Bet Sefer L’Tayarut (Israel School of Tourism; Givat Ram)
2. Derekh Eretz/Lander (Givat Shaul)
3. Archeological Seminars (Talpiyot I think)
And good luck!
This is a question that I’ve actually answered a number of times in person as well. Let me start by saying that option #3 above (Archaeological Seminars) is unfortunately no longer an option. Though the company still exists, they no longer run their tourguide course. I know this, because I actually have begun working for them on the Dig for a Day program that I wrote previously about here.
Archaeological Seminars’ course was the first English language tour guide course in the country and I have many friends who went through their program. If they were still running it, I very likely would have taken their course. Alas, it is not an option at the current time. Perhaps it will be again some day in the future!
That being said, let me discuss the other two options. I am only going to talk about courses in English, since those are the ones I know the most about, and since most people reading this blog (I suspect) will be interested in those.
As far as those other two, I can’t say which is actually “better.” I can only describe the differences as I perceive them. For starters, Bet Sefer L’Tayarut seems to have a more diverse student body — more Arabs and non-Jews. Lander College (where I go) tends to be more more Orthodox Jewish (though not exclusively).
Still, my class remains somewhat diverse in other ways. We have at least one non-Jewish person (and a few whose religious background I don’t know, but who may or may not be Jewish), and at least a couple of Jews who would not likely identify as Orthodox. We have no Arabs. By country of origin, we have students from at least seven different countries that I can think of off the top of my head, and perhaps more. The age range spans from a few students in their early 20s to a few in the late 60s or possibly into their 70s. At 39, I am approximately the median age in the class. And in terms of prior careers and life experiences, we are also quite a diverse group. Nonetheless, we are still rather homogeneous in terms of our religious practices.
Speaking to my friends in BST (as I will now refer to Bet Sefer L’Tayarut), I understand that they have more diversity on that level. They have Arab students (both Christian and Muslim, I believe), as well as a greater mix of observant and more secular Jews.
So if diversity in your class is something you value, BST may be your better choice. If it is not your primary concern, or if you specifically prefer to learn with mostly Jews of a more observant bent, then Lander may make more sense.
By the way, just for accuracy of knowledge, BST is run by Haifa University, and holds its English language course in Jerusalem on the Hebrew University campus in Givat Ram.
Another difference between the two programs comes into play on our siurim / trips. Our program goes into the shdachim / territories of Judea and Samaria more than any other course, to my knowledge. In general, the areas of the country that each course visits are mandated from the Ministry of Tourism, but there is some flexibility.
Lastly, based just on a gut feeling, I think that the administration at BST might be a better one than at Lander. Lander’s administration is good in general, but my (unscientific) feeling is that BST’s might be more professional overall. Take this last one with a grain of (Dead Sea) salt, since I have less knowledge of the administration of BST.
Baruch followed up with a few other questions:
What about better lecturers? Are you satisfied with the Lander lecturers? Are they top-notch or just okay?
I’ve already been teaching Historical Geography of the Bible for a number of years but just thought to add a guide license. Do you think Lander is flexible as far as participation (not showing up for everything)?
I heard that Lander doesn’t go into churches, is that true? Do they do a better job at Jewish sites?
In my opinion, the education I am getting in the Lander program is truly top notch. I am extremely happy with what I am learning in the course. With few exceptions, I consider the lecturers to be excellent and the tour guides for our various siurim are also generally outstanding. And since that is the main thing I am looking to gain from this course, not the other things, I have no real complaints. My guess is that the same holds true at BST, and thus the decision on which course to sign up for may be based on the above distinctions between the courses, without them being seen as making one course better or worse than the other.
In terms of flexibility regarding missing some lectures or whatever, I would guess that the answer would be the same in any course. The Ministry has a lot of oversight in these courses, and they have strict attendance requirements. This holds true both for classes and trips.
Finally, it is true that we do not enter churches as a class (due to religious reasons — many Orthodox Jews do not consider it permissible to enter a church). However, we need to know about churches for the Ministry exam, and at least some of the students in my class will likely guide inside churches in the future. So how is this handled?
We do go into the courtyards of churches, and the like, and discuss any relevant information. In most cases, time is allotted for those who do wish to go in and see for themselves to do so, while the others stay outside. And of course we learn all about Christianity (and Islam and Israel’s “minority religions”) in class. Is this a perfect solution? Probably not, but I think it does offer enough flexibility for it to work for the most people in the class without harming the experience of others too much.
Whether or not we get a better experience at Jewish sites would be difficult for me to say. My guess is that we get deeper into the background texts than others do, which could potentially be a good thing. And as I said earlier, we do visit a number of sites (mostly of Biblical significance) that other courses don’t. But whether this makes for a “better job” of covering Jewish sites or not is likely a matter of personal opinion.
I also received some similar questions from another reader, Anat, who will be moving to Israel soon from California. So I wanted to answer a few of her questions that were different from Baruch’s. She asked:
How did you choose the Lander program? If you had to do that over, would you still choose Lander?
Why are these courses so long? Why only once or twice a week? Is there any other courses that are full time so that I can finish sooner?
While you are in the course, what are you doing for a living? Part time job? Is that feasible? Is there a lot of homework? Assignments?
And, one last one for today, did the Jewish Agency/Nefesh b’Nefesh pay for a portion of your course tuition? If I remember correctly, I was told they will cover 80%, yes?
All good questions, Anat! Firstly, the way I chose Lander (in all honesty) was that it was starting, and I didn’t want to wait for the BST course to start. Obviously, I visited and sat in on a class before I chose to join the program, but it seemed good enough for my purposes. I knew a couple of students in the class that recently graduated from Lander’s course, so I asked them about it too, and they all seemed happy. Would I do it again? All things being the same, yes I would. If the BST course were starting at the same time, I would at least consider it, but in the end I might end up choosing Lander again anyway. To tell the truth, I think both programs are probably excellent, so things such as schedule or the other issues I mention here might be what would make me choose one over the other.
I don’t know of any courses that cover the material more quickly. I think the reason they take around 2 years and only meet on a part-time schedule is that you really need to do a lot of work outside of class. After each week’s tour, for example, you have to write up a full report on the tour, including the places you saw, all relevant information you learned there, routes to get where you went, and even timing of the drives. Most people will do at least some amount of further background reading on various points from the day before they even begin to write the report. So that alone takes a tremendous amount of time and effort, and that’s not even counting all the work for the classes themselves.
I would say it is nearly impossible to work full-time while you are in the course. Personally, I have been a freelancer for the bulk of my adult life, so I continue to do that, working at various jobs while I am studying in the course. Other people do some night work, or might be retired. Others work part time. But without a doubt, that is definitely one of the big challenges that you will face in this course — figuring out how to live while studying. And it is also one of the main reasons I know why people don’t join the course even though they want to.
Lastly, the question of getting money for the course from outside sources is a complicated one. For starters, Nefesh B’Nefesh does still (to the best of my knowledge) offer some grants for new immigrants, but to my knowledge they are not earmarked for anything specific. You can certainly consider using it to pay for tuition, but that would obviously depend on your specific needs. What you probably were thinking of was that the Misrad HaKlitah / Ministry of Immigrant Absorption offers (in theory) money to new immigrants for “professional retraining.” I say “in theory” because they have had many budgetary issues lately, and though I am technically eligible to receive some money back from them (I think it is more like 40-50%, not 80%, by the way), I still have not been able to collect. It remains to be seen if I will actually be able to, though I am hopeful.
I should say, however, that for what you receive in this course, the cost of the education is much lower than it would ever be in the States or England, for example. My course came to about 21,000 NIS and next year I think the tuition is scheduled to go up to around 25,000. That’s something like a little more than $6000. For that money, you receive two years worth of class time from experts in their fields, weekly trips all over the country (including transportation of course) and a number of 2-3 day overnight trips (including accommodations and meals). A similar course in the States would probably cost at least twice that, if not more.
I hope that this answers Baruch’s and Anat’s questions, as well as those of others who come across this in their searches. Please feel free to email me or add further questions in the comments to this post!