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Kosher CouchSurfing: Israeli students launch Jewish hospitality scheme

Last update - 12:02 28/06/2009

Kosher CouchSurfing: Israeli students launch Jewish hospitality scheme

By Cnaan Liphshiz As of this month, budget travelers have a new reason to smile - that is, if they're Jewish. That's because a group of Israeli students this month launched the world's first web-based hospitality project for Jews, allowing members of the tribe from all over the world to meet online and then stay at each other's houses instead of going to a hotel.

The model of the new website - www.Jewgether.org - is based on the CouchSurfing Project, the world's largest free, Internet-based, international hospitality exchange network. Jewgether allows travelers to get in touch with people who registered themselves on the site as willing to host Jewish tourists. The site contains information about the level of religious observance of each prospective host.

"Our project seeks to connect Jewish communities, but especially young Jews," says Boaz Albaranes, a student of the Technion in Haifa who launched the site together with three of his friends, all in their 20s. "Small and medium Diaspora communities have a problem in retaining the younger generation's Jewish identity," explains Albaranes about the rationale driving him to create Jewgether along with Doron Samish, Tamir Einy and Anna Davelman. "Being in constant and intimate touch with other Jews will help with that."

The project, which began last year as the work of 16 graduates of the fellowship program of the U.S.-based Israel advocacy group StandwithUs, has so far attracted 150 registered users from 13 countries, including Ecuador, Austria and even China. The organizers say it's probably too early for any of the users to have taken a hosting opportunity, but even so they would not know about it because they do not track the conversations the site generates.

Albaranes says Jewgether focuses more on smaller communities. "Everyone has family in New York and London," he asserts. "Jewgether is especially important when you're in Cleveland or Austria on Passover Eve, and you get that feeling that you want to be with your people. You don't want to be alone for the Seder."

To illustrate his point, Albaranes recalls his experiences when he traveled. "Take Nepal, for example. Every Rosh Hashana you get hundreds of secular, young Israelis flocking to Kathmandu's Chabad House to dine together. It's not a matter of religious or secular. It's linked to wanting to feel connected to something for a few hours."

Put together on a shoestring budget, Jewgether received sponsorship and endorsement from the Jewish Agency and the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

The site contains a "tips" page which advises guests to avoid overstaying their welcome, behave politely, return borrowed objects in better shape than they were, show consideration for the other's schedule and political beliefs and to be sure to know how kosher or Shabbat observant the host or guest are.

As a very basic means of making sure that Jewgether's clientele is strictly Jewish, people wishing to register have to answer three multiple-choice questions which, according to the Jewgether team, every Jew should know, such as the Hebrew word for synagogue, the direction one faces when praying in one, and the name of the Israeli army. In order to address user's security concerns lest the site be abused by anyone bent on attacking Jews, Albaranes says his team screens each registration request. "But of course users need to be careful and use common sense," he stresses. "Asking to see a copy of the passport of the host or the traveler is always a good idea."