Jerusalem From The Inside

Under construction tunnel for Jerusalem Train

The currently under-construction tunnel for the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv high-speed train. (Photo from Batim MiBifnim site.)

Of all the annual cultural events, festivals and public spectacles in Jerusalem, Batim MiBifnim/Houses From Within stands alone. To those lovers of Jerusalem who have been before, it is one of the most anticipated events of the year, while to many others it remains one of the most overlooked treasures in the city’s cultural calendar.

Every year, over the course of a weekend, scores of Jerusalem public buildings, institutions and private homes open their doors to visitors. Many even offer guided tours. And best of all, the entire event is free of charge!

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Why You Should Hire a Tour Guide in Israel – Part 2

Car in front of our jeep in the Golan Heights

Even when you go off-road in this country, you might hit traffic!

In Part 1 of this post, I highlighted two of my top five reasons you should hire a tour guide for your visit to Israel. I spoke about a tour guide’s ability to take you to places off the beaten track — places you would probably never have visited on your own, but which were still well worth the visit. I also mentioned our constantly up-to-date knowledge of what is happening in this country.

Here are three more types of added value that tour guides in Israel can offer you.

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Why You Should Hire a Tour Guide in Israel – Part 1

Greek Orthodox Viri Galilaei Church, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, Israel

Inside the Viri Galileai Greek Orthodox church on the Mount of Olives.

A lot of people travel all over the world and explore new places on their own, planning their trips with the help of guide books, websites and friends’ advice. So why should you hire a professional licensed tour guide for your trip to Israel? Certainly a tour guide is an expense that could bump your trip into a different budget range, so what is the added value that you will get for your dollar (or Euro, Pound, Shekel, etc.)?

As a licensed guide here in Israel, I believe that the service I provide (and the service provided by my many excellent and talented colleagues) gives my clients an unparalleled experience in Israel, whether they are first-time visitors to Israel, or seasoned tourists here. This post will highlight two of the my top five reasons why you should hire a tour guide for your trip to Israel, and I’ll give you the other three in Part 2 of this post.

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Israel: Land of Diversity

Hedge arch in Akko Baha'i Gardens. Israel.

Take a seat and enjoy the view in the Baha’i Gardens in Akko, surrounding the Shrine of the Baha’ullah

I just finished guiding an American family for the past two weeks, and we traveled all over Israel. We left out the Negev (south) because it is too hot in the middle of August, but beyond that, we pretty much hit the rest of the country and got at least a taste of all of its diverse regions. I designed the itinerary, and when planning an itinerary of this nature, the main guiding principle is going to be geography, i.e. we visit things that are close together on a single day, and move from region to region in logical sequence. In this case, we basically made a circular route, heading from the airport to Tel Aviv, then up the coast, across the Galilee to the Golan Heights and Kineret region, down the Jordan Valley to the Dead Sea, and then to Jerusalem and the Shefelah/Lowlands.

Of course, in designing such a tour, I also aim to present things that show various aspects of what this country has to offer. No one wants to spend two weeks seeing the same things over and over. But it wasn’t until I was on the tour with this family, a few days in, that it hit me just how diverse were the sites we were visiting. I know I’ve discussed Israel’s diversity before, but I was still impressed that we literally visited almost no sites that were redundant with each other.

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Jerusalem, Meet Jerusalem: Nahalaot

Nahalaot Street, Jerusalem

Nahalaot, Jerusalem

This coming Friday, July 20, I will be leading the next in my continuing series of Jerusalem walking tours — Jerusalem, Meet Jerusalem. Following logically from my prior tour of the first three Jewish neighborhoods built outside the walls of the Old City (Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Machane Yisrael and Nachalat Shiva), I am now giving a tour of one of the more unique neighborhoods in Jerusalem: Nahalaot. Nahalot finds it origins just a few years after those earliest neighborhoods, and expands on the settlement patterns those first three neighborhoods established.

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Walking in a Byzantine-Era Synagogue

Bimah in Umm el-Kanatir Synagogue. Golan Heights. Israel.

The Bimah at the front of the Umm el-Kanatir Synagogue

Almost anyone who has traveled throughout the north of Israel, especially if you have gone with a tour guide who took you to places you might not have visited on your own, has seen the ruins of Byzantine-era synagogues. There are many, with some of the more famous or impressive ones found at Bar’am, Tiberias and Tzippori. But on a trip to the Golan Heights this past week, I had the pleasure of revisiting a very exciting Byzantine synagogue that I had first seen almost exactly a year ago.

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New Walking Tour Series: Jerusalem, Meet Jerusalem

An early drawing of Mishkenot Shaananim, Jerusalem, Israel.

Mishkenot Sha'ananim, the first neighborhood built outside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, in a 19th Century engraving (late 1860s?)

For some time now I have wanted to apply my knowledge as a licensed tour guide in Israel to help my friends and acquaintances learn more about their country. Obviously, the bulk of my work will be with incoming tourists, but most Israeli residents and citizens love to explore their own country almost as much as foreign, visiting tourists. So one of the things I am beginning to do is run a series of short walking tours in different neighborhoods of Jerusalem, the city I live in and love.

I am entitling the series “Jerusalem, Meet Jerusalem” because it is largely designed to help Jerusalemites better get to know the city they live in. But of course these Jerusalem walking tours are also open to tourists and Israelis from other cities!

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ONLY in Israel – Top 5

View Across the Dead Sea. Fun Joel Haber. Israel Tour Guide.

A View Over the Dead Sea from Mount Sodom

Frequently, you hear people comment “Only in Israel,” in response to various things they overhear or see here. Often, it is meant to try to capture some of the unique aspects of the character of the Israeli people. But as we all know, these things don’t only happen in Israel, even if they are somewhat demonstrative and capture the spirit of the country.

For that reason, however, I wanted to write a post about the things that you truly can only see in Israel. Nowhere else in the world. Tour guides typically speak in hyperbolic extremes. I know that I am certainly “guilty” of this at times. We’ll tell you how a spot is the highest, largest, newest or furthest south of its kind. But while those extremes may be interesting, and can be mildly significant, they rarely are very important. They are typically little more than gimmicks to maintain interest.

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A Tour of Wineries in Eretz Binyamin / Samaria

Tanya Winery vinyeards. Ofra. Fun Joel Israel Tour Guide.

The vineyards of Tanya Winery in Ofra

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting five different wineries with some other tour guides and friends. The wineries were all located in the region of Eretz Binyamin — the area that was designated in the Bible for the tribe of Benjamin. Today it is part of the region known as Samaria, and there are at least 7 or 8 wineries in this small part of the hill country, a mere 25 miles or so apart. But before I get into the wineries themselves, I want to talk briefly about Israeli wines overall.

I love the story of the wine industry in Israel. Clearly one of the oldest and most famous industries in the land, winemaking was always an important identifying feature of Israel. Images, for example, of the spies sent by Moses to explore the land of Canaan, and their reports of giant grape clusters spring to mind. In fact, that very image is the logo of both Israel’s Ministry of Tourism and the largest wine producer in the country — Carmel Wineries.

However, with the arrival of Muslim rule, which lasted for about 1100 of the 1300 years prior to the 20th Century, Israeli wines virtually disappeared. Since Muslims are prohibited from drinking wine, virtually all Israeli wine production ceased, with perhaps a minor resurgence during the 200-year period of Crusader rule in the land (1099-1291, with periods of Muslim rule inside that time frame as well).

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Why Visit Israel?

Israeli flags and Jerusalem String Bridge. Fun Joel Israel Tour Guide.

Sun, Flags and the String Bridge - Jerusalem

On this Yom HaAtzmaut / Israel Independence Day, I’d like to write about something that might seem obvious to some of my readers. But it is far from obvious to all. Why visit Israel at all? Seems that as a licensed Israeli tour guide, it is something that I should think about and have an answer to.

Lucky for you, I do!

I raise the question, because yesterday I had the pleasure of being interviewed by a university student from the Netherlands who is writing her thesis on tourism in Israel. Among other things, she asked me an interesting question.

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