From Tour Guide to Tour Educator: A New Era in Professional Training at Taglit Birthright Israel

Taglit Birthright Israel is the 2nd largest Jewish educational framework in the world.

by Scott Copeland

Taglit Birthright Israel has become since its inception the largest arena in the Jewish world for educational tourism. In fact, Taglit Birthright Israel is the 2nd largest – the first being the Israeli public school system – Jewish educational framework in the world. Over 350,000 young Jewish adults from Diaspora communities and over 60,000 Israelis have participated in Taglit-Birthright Israel programs. Particularly in the summer, one would be hard-pressed not to notice the hundreds of buses adorned with Taglit Birthright logos traveling the length and breadth of Israel.

With all of that said, and the growth and impact of Taglit Birthright Israel is surely impressive, at the root of Taglit is the group experience of each bus and the individual experience of each participant. Although Taglit is a tourism experience it is also an educational experience. The break from the familiar and the everyday, the emphasis on group and community life, and the exploration of Israeli and Jewish topics, themes, and questions is more about transformation than it is about vacation. The educational aspiration is to provide participants with a setting where they can encounter and inquire about their own connections and unfolding understandings of themselves as members of the Jewish people. In what ways do I want to incorporate being Jewish in my life? How do I understand my connections to and questions about Israel? Taglit Birthright Israel has the potential to be a significant gateway to Jewish engagement following the 10 days in Israel, the potential to be a significant milestone in the lifelong Jewish journey of our participants.

The People on the Bus

“Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.” Jim Collins well-known advice about how to move from good to great is literally true about Taglit, and particularly about the project’s educational staff. Each Taglit bus includes 3 staff people – typically 2 from the group’s country of origin and an Israeli tour educator. It is the educational staff – and in particular the Israeli tour educator – who will be the most significant factor in molding ten days from “time off” to “time on”, from a bus group to a community on wheels.

It is well known that Israeli tour guides receive professional training that stands head and shoulders above the training received by their professional counterparts in other countries. The tour guide brings a wealth of information and great commitment to his/her work. With that said, Taglit-Birthright Israel aspires to develop a new kind of tour guide – the tour educator. In a nut shell, the tour educator is not only source of information. The tour educator is a community builder, a staff leader, and a counselor and facilitator for Jewish identity exploration.

Initiated by Taglit Birthright Israel, the Maimonides Fund, and Keren Karev, the Taglit Institute for Tour Educators will train a new type of tour guide – a tour educator. Beyond the information and training required by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, students participating in the training courses, seminars, and forums of the Taglit Institute will engage with areas of content and training particularly relevant to Taglit-Birthright Israel’s mission and educational platform. Training programs will engage future tour educators with the Jewish world and Israel’s place in contemporary Jewish life. Tour educators will devote time to gain a fuller understanding of their group participants and the contexts of their lives. Training participants will explore informal-experiential education and hone the professional skills needed to be inspiring and effective educators.

Training Tour Educators

Conventional tour guide training in Israel as overseen by the Ministry of Tourism is a nearly two year program including 650 hours of classroom work – Archaeology, Flora and Fauna, History, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Zionism. An additional 85 days are devoted to study tours from Metulla to Eilat, from Hebron to Herzliya. Very little time is dedicated to method or pedagogy, and education is not part of the study program. The tour educators course at the Taglit Institute includes all of the elements of the Ministry of Tourism program plus an additional 100 hours on topics related to Jewish life and identity, to informal and experiential education, to the vision and goals of Taglit Birthright Israel, and to teaching method, pedagogy, and facilitation skills. Throughout our tour educators course, consideration of the translation of information for education is woven throughout classroom and study tour time.

Additional training tracks aimed at more veteran tour guides – a three week seminar and week-long forum – offer a new gateway to Taglit Birthright Israel and focus on building the professional community. Taglit Institute training includes a Shabbat program as well as opportunities for students to observe Taglit groups in action, and to discuss relevant best practices and professional challenges.

In cooperation with a fine team of experienced educators at Jerusalem’s renowned Yad Yizhak Ben Zvi, 120 Taglit Institute grads have entered the field over the past year and are working with Taglit participants and groups. An additional 120 are currently in training. All Taglit Birthright Israel organizers are obligated to hire Institute trained tour educators as part of the educational standards of Taglit.

Some of the central elements of training include:

  • Recruitment and screening aimed at bringing to Taglit Birthright Israel young Israelis who have both practical background in informal education and are motivated by questions of identity exploration. (Graduates of the pre-military leadership programs, former Jewish Agency and Avi Hai community, Hillel, and summer camp shlichim, youth movement leaders, etc).
  • An emphasis on questions of personal and professional identity of the educator. Who am I as an Israeli and a Jew? How do I begin to formulate my own educational credo? What is our educational mission with Taglit participants?
  • An exposure to elements of Jewish life and community outside of Israel.
  • Contending with key issues from the field – dealing with Israeli current events as education rather than advocacy, marking Shabbat as a time of Jewish meaning, celebration, and community building, emphasizing the importance of talking with and listening to Taglit participants, and encouraging them to voice their issues, concerns, and questions about their own sense of being Jewish.
  • Acquiring new skills, tools, and competencies in building staff, in facilitation, in using varied implementations (game, music, text, etc).

Our work is not only focused on the individual educator. The Taglit Institute seeks to encourage an ethos of professional camaraderie. We think better and perform more competently when we work as a team, when we strive to cooperate and collaborate. If the typical tour guide is a lone wolf; the tour educator is a member of a professional pack.

Alongside the Taglit Institute for Tour Educators, a similar training facility is under consideration for the non-Israeli educational staff in North America. Such a facility has the potential to grow a cadre of para-professionals for Taglit; people who can mark their mark at Taglit and continue to contribute to Jewish education as volunteer leaders and professionals throughout the community.

Our work is still at the beginning. We are constantly incorporating feedback and evaluation to help us sharpen our own work. We are constantly examining and fine tuning our programs. Our plan is to create a new reality at Taglit – where a new generation of highly motivated, trained, and committed educators – can contribute their efforts to the already fine work at Taglit and to engaging young Jewish adults with Israel and with Jewish life.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

“Everything depends on the person who stands in front of the classroom. The teacher is not an automatic fountain from which intellectual beverages may be obtained. The teacher is either a witness or a stranger. To guide a pupil into the promised land, the teacher must have been there themselves. When asking themselves: Do I stand for what I teach? Do I believe what I say? The teacher must be able to answer in the affirmative. What we need more than anything else is not textbooks, but text people. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read: the text that they will never forget.”

The Taglit Birthright Israel Institute for Tour Educators strives to fulfill Heschel’s words – to raise up educators who know that the essence of Taglit is the shared experiences of the participants with a staff poised to listen and prepared to continue the conversation.

Scott Copeland is Director of the Taglit Birthright Israel Institute for Tour Educators.