Jerusalem is a magnet for religious tourism from all over the world, and ultra-Orthodox Jews are a growing segment of the religious tourists visiting the city. In order to meet their special needs, an ultra-Orthodox training program is offering a course to teach men to guide tourists through the spiritual center of the three great monotheistic religions.
The Lekach-run program provides an intensive 140 hours of classroom study plus eight field trips, covering 3,000 years of Jerusalem history -- from the First Temple period up to the modern 21st-century city. The course also includes archaeology, geography, ecology and demography, as well as training in how to guide and communicate effectively.
"To be a guide for ultra-Orthodox tourists requires more than just looking and dressing like an ultra-Orthodox person," said Yerucham Kanteman, the program's coordinator. "The guide must also have the correct terminology and understand the mentality of his audience. Not every tourist is interested in stories of the hazal [the sages]. The ultra-Orthodox are."
Kanteman said the guides don't have to limit themselves to the ultra-Orthodox community.
"There are many general tourists who are interested in a Jerusalem experience and who would be happy to learn from up close about the city's ethnic mosaic," he said.
Yosef Haizraeli, a white-bearded student, father of nine and grandfather of six, echoes this sentiment.
"I want to be able to tell people about the history of the religious community in Jerusalem and its contributions to society," he said. "I would like to bring this information not just to ultra-Orthodox groups, but also to general tourists."
The program also answers another growing need in the ultra-Orthodox community -- employment training.
For years, Charedi men in Israel have been encouraged by their community to engage in full-time religious studies. As a consequence, some 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox men do not participate in the labor market. According to the Bank of Israel research department, the overall level of participation in the workforce in Israel is 55 percent, 10 percent lower than in any other Western country. About one-third of this gap is due to ultra-Orthodox men who do not work.
Recent budgetary cuts in government welfare spending have hit the ultra-Orthodox community especially hard, resulting in a growing awareness of the need to participate in the labor market. Unfortunately, many ultra-Orthodox men lack marketable skills.
Financed by the Jerusalem Foundation, the program is run by Lekach: The Ultra-Orthodox Training Center in Jerusalem, in conjunction with Yad Ben-Zvi and the City of David Project.
The program's first class had 24 students, ranging in age from 20-something to 70-something. They came from all sectors of the ultra-Orthodox community and learned about the tour guide course from ads in religious newspapers.
Lekach was the natural choice for running this program. Over the past five years, it has established itself as a professional training center for the ultra-Orthodox community in areas related to community and society. It does so while providing an appropriate framework that conforms to the sensibilities of this population. The center conducts courses for sports instructors, dance teachers, librarians, community center professionals and photographers.
"We believe that those who serve the ultra-Orthodox need to know the community and its culture and this can be best done by the community itself and not by outsiders," said Naomi Borodiansky, Lekach's director.
"In putting together the program, I contacted the most professional bodies in the field with respect to building the curriculum and providing instructors," she added.
Feedback about the program has been so positive that Lekach is planning more courses in the future and hopes to add a similar group for ultra-Orthodox women.
The agency itself has a very good employment track record, with a high percentage of its course graduates finding work. Borodiansky is equally optimistic about the tour guides.
"There are many school and yeshiva groups touring Jerusalem, in addition to community groups and families," she said. "School groups are really hesitant to take tour guides who are not ultra-Orthodox."
Uri Eldar, one of the program's younger participants, is a musician with his own band who was studying in a kollel, a yeshiva for married men.
"All my life, I have loved to go places and learn about history," he said. "This course has given me a wonderful opportunity -- to make my hobby into my profession. As a religious person, I see things through a spiritual lens. As a tour guide, I will be bringing a love of Israel and the values of the Jewish people to those I guide. What could be better?"
For help organizing a tour of Israel, visit www.goisrael.com.
Gail Lichtman is a writer with the Israel Press Service and correspondent for the Jerusalem Post.