My House Is Your House
Tue, 01/25/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
Israel Home Exchange founder Lior Student’s Tel Aviv apartment.. Courtesy of Lior Student
Israel Home Exchange founder Lior Student’s Tel Aviv apartment.. Courtesy of Lior Student

Every summer when
she was a little girl, Lior Student and her family swapped their Mediterranean beachside house for an apartment nestled inside the walls of the Jerusalem Old City’s Jewish Quarter.

“To this day — and you have to understand I come from a secular family — that was my first experience with religious kids,” Student said. “I got to know the religious quarter by heart. My parents sent us to buy pitas from the Arabs in the market.”

Student, now 36, grew up in a moshav sandwiched between the coastal cities Netanya and Hadera, and annual apartment swaps were a favorite part of her family’s summer vacations. So when she grew up and moved out on her own, it felt natural to Student to continue in this tradition. And about five years ago, she tried swapping for the first time, using Craigslist.

“Did you see the movie ‘Holiday?’” she asked The Jewish Week, referring to a film where characters played by Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet exchange their England and Los Angeles homes, and Diaz’s character falls in love with a British local played by Jude Law. “That happened to me. I did it with a guy in Paris, and we overlapped for a few days and completely fell in love.”

Aside from the Paris exchange, however, Student was surprised to find little interest in her renovated central Tel Aviv apartment on the various worldwide swap sites she joined. But after finally taking part in a successful trade with a homeowner in Andalusia, Spain, she sought a way to get more Israelis involved in the exchange experience and make more of their homes available to potential visitors to the Jewish state. To do so, she launched a collection of Facebook groups under the umbrella “Israel Home Exchange”; they have since accumulated more than 7,000 members in the past year and a half. Subgroups include Israel-USA exchanges, Israel-Europe exchanges, sublets, exchanges for Israelis within Israel and a kosher home exchange.

“You can get to the oddest places; never would I have found that even on a map,” she said of her own Andalusian swap. “When I got back I just wanted to spread the word. I got to show Israel to people the way I had wanted to. I got to experience their country in a different way. And all of this was for free — it was unbelievable.”

The quick membership growth in her Facebook group testifies to an increased global interest in highly personalized — yet cheaper — forms of travel. Paid sites across the Web, such as HomeExchanges.com have long offered opportunities for members to trade homes nearly anywhere. Within Israel, Craigslist’s Tel Aviv section offers a home swap category, while Hebrew sites Homeless.co.il and Yad2.co.il also offer similar opportunities. But sites that focus solely on Israeli or Jewish home exchanges and hospitality, like the Israel Home Exchange, are few and far between. That is something Student is aiming to change. She feels that a shared love of Israel brings about a mutual trust among the users, even if they decide to make trades outside Israel.

“There’s something about the focus of Israel that makes people more comfortable — they are exchanging with someone with a common interest,” Student said.

Other young travel innovators agreed, including Boaz Albaranes, one of three co-founders of a year-old site called Jewgether, which — a bit differently from the Israel Home Exchange — facilitates “couch-surfing.” In this increasingly popular travel choice, locals host strangers from anywhere in the world on their “couches” — free of charge and typically with a reciprocal agreement.

“Couch-surfing is known, but there was no ‘Jewish couch-surfing’ — especially for all Jews of all streams,” said Albaranes. “There are some that are more Orthodox oriented. When we searched for ones that are into the tourist experience as well as a Jewish experience that suits any Jew — however he defines himself — we couldn’t find any.”

Albaranes, along with partners Tamir Einy and Doron Samish, have seen their nonprofit site grow to about 1,000 members from 36 different countries.

For both apartment swaps and couch-surfing, Student and Albaranes emphasize the importance of a uniquely local experience for guests. Student suggests the owner leave things like wine, beer and tickets to local concerts behind for the guests, while she also makes sure to leave a Rolodex filled with her favorite restaurants and sites — things you don’t tend to find in a guidebook.

Meanwhile, of course, she urges hosts to provide practical home instructions, like cleaning instructions or particular local habits to observe, such as water conservation and minimal air conditioning usage in Israel.

“I have them be a local for a week if they exchange with me,” Student said. “You can have a cultural exchange and feel like a local in the world and see a place in a way you never would as a tourist.”

Albaranes agreed, “If you’re traveling a city with a local person, then the experience is so much better.”

Albaranes himself was hosted by a Jewish family in Guatemala City, Guatemala, that showed him not only the prime destinations of the area, but also the intricacies of Jewish life there.

“Everybody knows the feeling being abroad on a Friday night or a Shabbat,” Albaranes said.

Albaranes thinks that Israel could even use couch-surfing to make it easier and more attractive for young Jewish tourists to keep coming back to the country after they forge personal relationships and get a taste of local flavor.

“If a Taglit participant is coming to Israel and is here for 10 days, he’s touring the country and seeing everything it has to offer,” he said, referring to the popular 10-day Birthright program. “But imagine if he extended his trip and stayed here with someone after.”

Of course, the idea of staying with or in the homes of complete strangers worries many travelers. Though Student says there is little need to worry about safety — because both parties have an equal stake in the trade — she provides those who are still concerned with a handmade contract that indicates the rights of each party. She also recommends trying out a short, perhaps weekend, home exchange within one’s own state or country before making a long-distance, longer-term swap.

“Slowly you grow into this,” she said. “The experiences I’ve had have all been positive. I behave the way I want someone to behave in my own home. There’s a mutual risk involved so both people are equally nervous. I always ask people, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’”

Travelers can also increase their personal security by doing things like exchanging copies of flight tickets and passports, virtually touring the homes beforehand through Skype and checking out the person’s Facebook profile.

“I think the Facebook platform is interesting because people can see who they know in common,” said Student. She does, however, plan to expand her Facebook groups into an additional paid-for website, by working with one of the already-established companies.

Right now, swappers who want the guarantee of a site with paid memberships and are not concerned with having a strictly Jewish or Israel-focused membership pool can already turn to hubs like HomeExchange.com. This site, established by Californian Ed Kushins in 1992, now has 37,000 listings in 132 countries and over 60,000 exchanges occurring per year, according to the company. Membership costs $120 annually and $15.95 monthly.

“We find paying for membership insures the sincerity, excitement and commitment of a member,” says Keghan Hurst, director of public relations and marketing for the group.

Hurst said his company has seen Israel listings increase “tremendously” over the past year, and nearly half of the hundreds searching for swaps in Israel come from America.

Whether travelers choose paid or unpaid, specific or general websites for their searches, the different companies agree that saving money is a welcomed result of home swaps, though hardly the only motivation to participate.

“Obviously one of the largest reasons is the financial aspect, by saving thousands on too-often overpriced lodging expenses,” Hurst said, noting that people also sometimes include their cars as part of the deal. “However it is also because people have really fallen in love with being able to experience their destination like a local.”

He continued, “With this way of travel you are provided the ability to travel the world, while living like a local and staying for free. Taking in the local café as opposed to the overpriced one meant for tourists.”

Thinking back to her childhood summers, Student hopes tourists will begin to take advantage of the home-exchange and couch-surfing opportunities now at their fingertips, to truly “see how Israelis live.”

“I think that this would be an eye-opening experience for so many Americans,” Student said.