The Secret Lives of Israel Tour Educators

Screenshot: CBS LA

By Sharna Marcus

The tour guide greets you at Ben Gurion with a smile on his face and a backpack that reaches above his head. “Welcome to Israel. Baruchim Habaim.” You might be exhausted from the flight, but that boisterous voice and kind smile motivates you to get through the jet lag.

But what you don’t see behind that smile, behind the clipboard piled with vouchers, medical information, and itineraries is his family that is left at home for 7 days to a month only communicating for minutes on Facetime as the call fades in and out when the bus travels through the desert.

I met my husband at Golda Meir’s grave. I was sent to observe him guide as this was his first time leading a group and I was the director of education of a tour company. He was a security guard who had just passed his Moreh Derech licensing exams, and the original tour guide of his group had been sent to Gaza to serve in Operation Cast Lead. He was deputized tour educator and never looked back. He is among one of the most popular guides in the field. I know, I am biased. But before I was his girlfriend or fiance or wife, I was his colleague. Any group who has him once requests him again and again. He is not necessarily unique in this aspect, but he is one of probably 50 elite tour guides in the country who have this status, especially when it comes to Birthright or other large educational tours.

I don’t say this to brag, although I say it a little to brag. I say this because I am one of many women with young kids who are without their husbands for long stretches of time so that your children can have the best Israel experience possible. Before you accuse me of sexism, without exception, I do not personally know of one woman who has been able or wanted to manage the rigors of guiding large groups with raising children. (Nor should they. It’s insane.) I worked with one woman who had an 18 month old who sobbed every night because she missed her daughter so much. Perhaps if Jewish organizations had the resources of Yahoo’s Melissa Mayer and could keep families with their moms throughout the trip, the result would be different. But these trips are run with low overhead to please donors (as they should) and bring as many people to Israel as possible. However, the cost is that very few women with families continue to serve Diaspora groups.

I was once going to write this in an attempt to persuade the organizations that run these trips to offer more (any) time off for their guides: perhaps one evening out of seven. But I don’t know if my husband would even take this opportunity. The group becomes “his” and the responsibility is great and the stakes are too high to not be with them 24 hours a day. Sometimes the organization he works for invites our family for Shabbat. However, this is also not easy with two small children competing for his very, very divided attention. After a recent weekend, my daughter left happy to see her abba, but distraught when he wasn’t there to put her to bed.

Also parenting is a 2-person job. (For those of you who do it yourselves, you are amazing). So is marriage. I miss my husband and need him here, or I guess want him here.

Although I’m not sure this would help my situation, I know that there are many guides who would appreciate a night off to be with their families or to have them there for Shabbat. As my husband reminds me, there are many children who are raised with traveling fathers. People in the US Military don’t see their kids for a year at a time in some cases! What happens is in some marriages (mine is not one of them) is that the wife/partner puts her/his foot down and says, “I can’t do this anymore. You have to stop guiding these kinds of trips.” So Jewish educational organizations that bring their youth and young adults to Israel lose out on the best guides. New, great guides do emerge, but not at the rate that the ones with young families get out of the business to guide wealthy families or to seek other professions.

In the history of Israel experience, the choice has been made not to care if a great guide leaves the pool. No one tries to get him/her back. There is no movement to help female guides still educate young people while managing their families. Accommodations are not made. As it is said, “the job is the job.”

Perhaps this is the best that can be done. Or is it? I’d like to think that a Diaspora community that has brought about a million Jewish youth to Israel since the State’s founding can also think of creative ways to keep the best guides educating their children.

Until then, does anyone know of any good babysitters?

Sharna Marcus is a high school teacher, writer and educational consultant living in Israel.