For the thousands of visitors who flock to Israel from around the world, a new tourist attraction is making its way to the top of the “must-see” list. Women and Tales in Jerusalem offers tourists an insider peek at the homes and lives of a variety of Jerusalem women and their families, ranging from Arab to secular to religious—and, most unlikely—chareidi. It’s part of a worldwide trend known as “social tourism,” which gives visitors the chance to really experience the local lifestyle hands-on and personal.
“When I went to China many years ago, I was fascinated by a visit to the home of an old man who lived in a traditional Beijing hutong cottage,” says Yael Kurlander, who manages the project. She mentioned this to her friend Orly Ben-Aharon, advisor to Mayor Nir Barkat’s project for the advancement of women at the Jerusalem municipality. It was exactly what Ben-Aharon needed to hear. The idea melded together two important pieces—helping local women build an independent, profitable business while providing a fresh new tourism initiative.
On the program’s website, a wide array of women offer short bios and profiles of the hosting options they provide, from a multi-course, home-cooked gourmet meal to a pottery workshop, healing herbs, and a lesson on making stuffed grape leaves. Hadar Kleidman, who lives in the Ein Kerem neighborhood, invites visitors to take a spin on her manual spinning wheel and loom where she creates woolen garments. Chana Azulai, in Kiryat Menachem, promises an “authentic Moroccan experience” complete with couscous and marzipan cookies. Alternatively, there’s Elizabeth, a Christian woman who lives in the Armenian Quarter in the Old City, and the women who live in an Arab village in the heart of Jerusalem called Sharafat and offer a henna workshop along with traditional Arab dress and dining. A number of participants are artists and feature studios in their homes, including one chareidi woman who hosts guests at her home-studio in Meah Shearim!
In addition to the food and workshops they provide, each woman has her own story, an element central to the initiative and consistent with the program’s name, Women and Stories in Jerusalem. It is the stories that the creators of the project feel are most inspiring and unique, and elevate the visit to something more personal and lasting. After all, connection is what we all seek, and a hostess sharing her own story with her visitors is a priceless experience.
“We help each woman develop her own story, using the tools and the life experiences she already naturally has,” Yael explains. Yael’s own background is in business development, and she is the one who helps prepare the women who are selected to participate in the program. Every woman undergoes a specialized course to help her develop her “product” and to give her the business and marketing skills to become a small business owner. Jerusalem’s Ministry of Tourism gives the women backing in marketing the program, but each woman is expected to do her part to bring in clients as well.
Against the backdrop of this very successful initiative, Manchester-born Naomi Miller is something of an anomaly. While chareidim are famed for their chesed and hospitality, opening one’s home to groups of tourists from all over the world is hardly a typical pursuit. But this soft-spoken mother of twelve and grandmother of sixteen, ka”h, who lives in the Mekor Baruch neighborhood of Yerushalayim, is unfazed. Indeed, the program is only a natural outgrowth of the open home she and her husband created over 20 years ago when they were newly married. The fact that her guests may be Asian, Spanish or African gives her an opportunity to make a kiddush Hashem and to educate non-Jews about the beauty of Torah and mitzvos and set right old canards about the “ultra-Orthodox” as well as the Land of Israel and the Jewish People.
Naomi and her husband, whom she describes as the “push” behind all of the couple’s projects, began hosting Shabbos guests very early on. Today they regularly have between eight and 20 guests at their Shabbos table every week, many of whom sleep over in the family’s five-bedroom apartment as well, taking over her children’s bedrooms. Her family is used to embracing hachnasas orchim as their special mitzvah, and Naomi was gratified to see that her married children have continued with this same tradition, readily hosting guests even as newlyweds. “That’s the barometer,” she quips. “If they don’t want anything to do with guests, you know that you’ve done it wrong.” Still, she never dreamed of branching out into tourism until she got a call from her local neighborhood community center, known as the minhal or matnas.