Taglit’s Cream of The Crop: New Training Institute for Tour Educators

Taglit-Birthright Israel launched the new Taglit Institute for Tour Educators in May this year. Director Scott Copeland hopes to see it become the Harvard of training institutes for tour guides in Israel and as such, the Institute’s selection process is focused and thorough to ensure only the cream of the crop are chosen.

by Darryl Egnal

A new endeavor aimed at addressing the scarcity of tour guides in the country who fully understand the spirit, mindset and diverse interests of the young Jewish adults whom they will guide on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip was inaugurated earlier this year with a working budget of $1.5 million.

Funded by the Maimonides Foundation and Keren Karev, the aim of Taglit Institute for Tour Educators is to develop a group of tour educators who understand themselves as informal Jewish educators; embody and articulate the central and unique place of Israel as a landscape of inspiration, meaning and challenge for Jewish life; and are equipped to accompany participants on a key leg of their life-long Jewish journeys.

“I think Taglit reached a point where it began to realize more and more that in order to both preserve what is and improve what is – go from great to even greater – it was very, very important to make some investments with regards to the staff on the trips, and to start, first and foremost, with the tour guide and the tour educators,” says Scott Copeland, director of the Taglit Institute for Tour Educators.

“Although the traditional tour guide courses that are run all over the country are very, very good (and I’m a former director of one of them), they don’t do what Taglit needs. We’re trying to redefine the definition of the tour guide so that we understand who our participants are. They’re not tourists. They’re part of our family. And we want them to be part of the family, so our tour educators have to work in a different way than the average tour guide.

“While the tour guide is a fountain of information, the tour educator will be a facilitator for transformation,” says Copeland, himself a highly experienced guide and educator who has run various educational programs for many well-known organizations.

“This means that the selection process is the most important part. We have really devoted an enormous amount of time to locate the right people; people who are doing this not because of the contract, but because they see this as a type of ‘shlichut’ (mission). They understand that working with Taglit is not just tour guiding like you could do with any other group, but it really is contributing in a serious way to the betterment of the Jewish world.”

In terms of the students, all the courses are highly subsidized. Students on the full course, for example, pay about a third of what the course costs Taglit per student and they pay only half of the cost of a regular tour guide course in Israel. Depending on the track chosen, the investment per student is roughly between US$1500 and US$10,000.

“It’s quite a considerable investment,” he says, “but then again, in any educational institution that respects itself, if you’re not investing in developing your staff, what are you investing in? I think that is really the bottom line in terms of the raison d’être of the school. Taglit sees itself as a serious educational program and not just an Israel trip and we need to be able to support the kinds of people that get out there and do the educational work that’s needed.”

Partners and the programs

The Taglit Institute for Tour Educators has partnered with the Ben Zvi Institute, established for the purpose of continuing the Zionist, educational and cultural activities of former President Izhak Ben-Zvi.

Yad Ben Zvi is officially the organizer of the Institute, in the same way as the various tour companies are organizers of Taglit trips. “Beyond that, they’ve been a very, very important part of this project,” he says. “I work with their course coordinators very closely. They are employees of Yad Ben Zvi, but they are also seasoned tour guides who have worked with many, many Taglit groups.”

The Institute has divided its programs into three tracks for three different audiences.

The Seminar course (launched in May) is a three-week program for 25 students who are all newly-licensed tour guides, but have not had the opportunity yet to work with Taglit. This is their gateway into Taglit.

The full 15-month tour educator’s course opened in September with a group of 40 students. This is essentially a course that includes all of the obligations of a tour guide course anywhere in the country, but with an additional 120 hours (totaling 700 hours), adding in those parts specifically designed for Taglit tour educators. This first course had 300 applicants, of which 160 were invited for interviews. Only 40 participants were accepted.

And finally, there is a five-day Forum for Veteran Guides (launched in October) for people who have run anything from 20 to 60 Taglit tours, some of them since the very beginning of the organization.

Feeling part of Taglit’s mission

The response to the Forum has been extremely positive. Hilik Wald, a licensed tour guide for three and a half years who has led 16 Birthright trips, was very happy that Birthright realized there was a need for real professional Birthright education training, and he wanted to be part of it.

“While tour guide training is focused on facts and history (information, information, information), this training was much more,” he says. “The Forum focused on making us better educators, not just by delivering facts, but on how to encourage participants to think differently about their Jewish identity, relationship with Israel, and more…”

Maya Paskar, who has worked as a tour guide for the past eight years and has run many Birthright trips, agrees. “It is always good to renew yourself, but even more important is to understand the system you’re working with, what its goals are, and how it affects people,” she says. “This motivates you to keep doing what you are doing, to keep putting an effort into it, and coming into a new session with passion!”

“The Forum was a great idea – letting tour guides meet, share ideas and wisdom, and hear from the top what our goals are and how we are affecting the Jewish world of today and tomorrow. The highlight of the program was just sharing – ideas, difficulties and moments from our experiences,” Paskar says.

“Through this Forum, the other tour guides and I felt, for the first time, that we were in direct dialogue with the heads of Birthright,” says Wald. “We had honest and open conversations and were able to talk about challenges in the field and how to improve the experience.

“It was also nice to have the opportunity to dialogue with other tour guides. As guides, we often don’t have time to sit together and discuss how we run programs and discuss our educational styles. In this Forum, I sat together with tour guides who have done more than 100 groups! To sit and learn from and with them was great.

“For the first time, I felt as though Birthright was investing in me and in other educators. I think this platform is important and will improve the entire Birthright program,” he says.

Reaction from the field

Taglit’s tour organizers know that at least 10% of the educational staff for this coming winter season must be graduates of the programs. Next summer, Taglit expects it to be 20% and each season, this number will increase. In five or six years, the aim is to have a vast majority of tour educators who have gone through the Institute at one level or another.

The response to this and the Institute has been very mixed. Many guides feel it’s not necessary as they’re already licensed and should be good enough. They believe Taglit is setting standards that are not realistic.

“But we see our work as education and we take that seriously,” says Copeland. “Preparation, training, professional development – these are valuable tools – and if they don’t see it like that, then maybe they shouldn’t be working in Taglit. And that’s what I’m going to continue to push.”

What about Taglit staff from outside Israel?

In a recent article on eJP by Joel Frankel, the Israel Engagement Professional at the Jewish Federation of Saint Louis, he discusses how American staff on Taglit-Birthright Israel can strengthen Jewish continuity for future generations. He quotes the Israel Outdoors staff manual, which says the American staff is officially “responsible for group dynamics, educational enrichment, and general support”, but realistically, he says, they are responsible for babysitting the participants.

“How can we embrace the ‘Jewish Diversity’ on each Birthright trip while simultaneously empowering participants to take ownership of their Jewish identity and personal relationship to Judaism and Israel? I believe it starts with requiring additional training for the American staff on all Taglit-Birthright trips compared to what is currently required, which can amount to as little as a conference call or webinar,” Frankel suggests.

Benji Lovitt, who worked as a Birthright trip coordinator for the Israel Experience and recently staffed a trip through Israel Outdoors, comments on Frankel’s article.

“Talk to many Israeli tour guides across the majority of providers and they’ll unfortunately tell you about their stereotype of the average American madrich over the last 13 years; someone who is more a participant than a leader who the guide can’t rely on to be a strong educator or a dependable logistics person; someone often just along for the ride,” he says. “I think by far and away the biggest question we need to ask to improve the staff is not ‘what tools can we give our madrichim to do a better job?’, but ‘what are we looking for in a successful madrich/educator?’.”

And, according to Copeland, this is exactly the goal of the Taglit Institute – choosing the right people – and the next order of business is, in fact, focusing on the other staff members.

“We’re looking now at a potential project in which we do something similar in training with the staff coming from outside of Israel,” he says. “Obviously, the logic is to say that the tour educator is a really essential player, but on every Taglit bus, there are two other staff members who play an important role in the experience, also educationally. If we can help them to do their jobs better, then we’re only making the experience more meaningful, and that’s what it’s all about. The more people involved, the better the experience and the greater the impact.

“But there’s still so much to do and that’s part of the excitement. Many organizations, when they get to a certain age, think they know what they’re doing and everything is great… One thing I draw from Taglit is that even though everyone recognizes that we’ve succeeded in many, many ways, they also realize that you can’t just let that success sit. You have to keep building on it, pushing yourself, challenging yourself, and at that level, it’s a fun place to be because it’s a sense of dynamism, and that’s something I really appreciate,” Copeland concludes.