A Kosher Couch
By Carolyn Maurer and Ben Timmins, Correspondents
BOSTON—Young travelers without a place to stay have long looked to the Internet to find free lodging with sites such as CouchSurfing.com. But what happens when you want a couch and a kosher meal?
"Some Jewish people have certain requirements when traveling," said Boaz Albaranes, 27, one of the three co-founders of Jewgether, all under 30, a web organization promoting strengthened ties between Jews across the world through coordinating free couches to crash on.
Albaranes, a self-proclaimed traditional but secular Jew, can’t easily use Couchsurfing because he keeps Kosher, a strict dietary regimen that is difficult to follow when visiting other homes. This regimen led to Jewgether's questionnaire on member's lifestyles to allow "people to keep what they need" of their religious devotion.
Tamir Einy met the other two co-founders in Haifa, Israel after Technion College through a fellowship with StandWithUs, an organization that promotes Israeli's side of the conflict with Middle Eastern countries, which has six different campuses with about 25 members at each.
Tamir said he initiated the idea after being a camp counselor at a Jewish camp in Santa Rosa, California, an hour north of San Francisco.
"We went on a road trip with friends from camp and then went to visit people that we knew" and along the way stayed with strangers. "They invited us to their home and we had a ‘Jewgethering’ before the real idea came up," Einy said in a Skype interview from Haifa.
The process and idea behind Jewgether is simple: create a profile at Jewgether.org, and find other people. Account members are encouraged to both host travelers in their homes and "surf" by being hosted by someone else. Albaranes said that the system is built so that no one person can "take advantage" of it by only traveling and not hosting.
But what makes Jewgether different from its counterparts like CouchSurfing.org is that Jewgether is only for Jewish members. Albaranes, with a shaved head, casual polo, and an accent befitting a native Israeli who moved to Boston only three months ago to be closer to his girlfriend, said that Jewgether is fundamentally different from CouchSurfing. "It's easier to have a connection with a person if you have a similar background," he said.
In 2009 Masa, a non-profit organization funded with help from the Jewish Agency for Israel led a $800,000 ad campaign throughout Israel with the message that 50% of Jews are "lost" due to assimilating into countries outside of Israel, therefore losing their cultural and religious identity.
"We're trying to bring Jews together, with an emphasis on young adults," Albaranes said. "There's a fear in the diaspora that people in their 20s are not connected to each other."
Albaranes said that Jewgether is "a good idea among many others" which seeks to keep the international community of young Jews together.
The idea is not completely new, said Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, Rabbi of Temple Beth Zion in Brookline. “As with most things they are not new, the tech is new, it is a revival of something … [that] goes back a very long way.”
Waldoks said it was, rather, “a renewal of an older concept called hachnasat orchim, which means hospitality for guests,” he said. “It was considered to be very much part of the everyday life of jews all over the world that whenever visitors came there would be a place to put them up.”
Einy said that despite the idea’s historic roots, it serves a more modern purpose. "We try to find a solution to the problem of the missing Jewish identity and the increasing Jewish assimilation, this is one of the goals of Jewgether."
"The Jewish people, we're not enough," Boaz said about the small population of Jews, who make up 0.22% percent of the world's population according to Adherents.com
The founders say they don't feel excluding non-Jews is a bad thing. "I am not against Couchsurfing and I'm a member there and I think it's great to get to know other people and cultures," Einy continued, "but as a Jewish person it is much more interesting to take care of my community and people first and then the rest of the world."
Safety is also a large concern when staying with strangers. "I think some people feel more secure," said Albaranes, if they know they are staying at a fellow Jewish house, whose profile and background has been reviewed with precision by Albaranes.
Doron Samish, the third co-founder said Jewgether is no different from many other niche sites. "There is a gay hospitality service that excludes straight people," he said. "Jewgether is a product for a community with a need," he said, via Skype interview from Jerusalem.
"Jewgetherings," or international meetings between Jews, foster friendships across borders even if the traveler doesn't stay with the host.
"We met for a beer once or twice, it was great. We met with some friends of mine as well, and he is still in touch from time to time," said Samish of his Jewgethering.
Einy also had a great experience. "I met a French guy named Eric, we met twice and he came to Israel as a job internship. I took him to parties, and it was great. We're still in touch," he said.
Jewgether's success asserts a similar story. Although the founder's goal was 1,000 members from 10 countries by June 2010, their one-year anniversary, there are already 700 members in over 30 countries with a Jewgether profile. "There's an Egyptian girl in Cairo. That's kinda cool," said Albaranes.
"The feedback is very positive," Albaranes continued, "the enthusiasm is really encouraging and I hope we'll gain more members" due to word of mouth from Jewgetherers like Einy's friend Eric, who "helped us to spread the word in France where he lived because he really liked it."
However, expansion is limited by funding. After start-up donations from StandWithUs and sectors of the World Zionist Organization, Jewgether is funded through the founder's own wallets.
Einy estimates he's put in $600-700 personally, which he says is "not a lot." But, it’s "enough for it to be a bit hard on a student's non-existent salary," said Samish.
The cost, and the "hundreds and hundreds of hours of work" which prevents the founders from working for money doesn’t deter their dedication.
"Still we do it because we like it and it's important to us," said Einy.
The founders think traveling experiences are so important that a free couch isn't enough—more services are needed. "We're trying to help with traveling" Albarnes said. Jewgether is in the process of translating the site into more languages, starting with Spanish and French. They are also finding and posting events happening in cities on the website for Jewgetherers to participate in. He explains that travel books can only offer so much to do.
Becasue of Jewgether's suggestions of fun places to see and good places to eat, in addition to a free place to sleep, "It's not just Jewish facebook," Albaranes joked.