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(RNS) Andre Ufferfilge figures he probably could have found a couch to crash on in Israel through friends of friends, but he instead found a home-cooked kosher meal and acceptance for his traditional Jewish lifestyle.
Before he left his university campus in Dusseldorf, Germany, Ufferfilge hopped online and registered with Jewgether, a social networking site dedicated to finding a home away from home for Jews on the road.
Through the site, Ufferfilge spent four days as a guest of a Jewish family in Neve Daniel, a Jewish settlement outside Jerusalem, and two more days with “liberal” students in the southern city of Beersheva.
“I wanted to be in a Jewish home, where I could keep kosher and where I would not be seen as an exotic being when I pray with a tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries),” Ufferflige said.
“I also wanted to show Jews in foreign countries that, despite the Holocaust, Judaism is still alive and growing in Germany.”
Started last June by three Israeli college students, Jewgether now counts 650 members across 32 countries. A similar site, See You on Shabbos, was launched by an Orthodox rabbi in New York less than four months ago, and now boasts nearly 4,000 members in 31 countries.
The two sites — established 6,000 miles apart by Jews from very different backgrounds — share a common goal: forging meaningful relationships between Jews of different ages, nationalities and religious observance.
Another goal of Jewgether, co-founder Tamir Einy said, is to “strengthen Jewish identity,” noting that about two-thirds of his members aren’t particularly religious.
Like most Israelis who take a break after completing their mandatory military service, Einy and his partners were seasoned world travelers, and accustomed to the Middle East’s legendary hospitality. Yet they were struck by the warm reception they received from Jews in the Diaspora.
“There was this bond,” Einy said. “I remember being in Santa Cruz, Calif., and through a friend, a family invited us for Shabbat dinner. We talked for four straight hours. Then they invited us for Shabbat lunch the next day. Then the mother of the house told us her brother lived in San Diego and that we could stay with him. The entire trip was like that.”
While experiencing Shabbat (a common term for the Sabbath) is an important part of Jewish hospitality and identity, “our goal is to make every day a good one,” Einy said. “The experience doesn’t have to be religious.”
That’s where See You on Shabbos differs slightly.
Rabbi Benzion Klatzko, a father of 11 who works for a New York foundation that trains rabbis to serve on college campuses, says his site focuses solely on matching guests and hosts for Shabbat because “it is the most joyous of times.”
“It’s the day when parents don’t work,” he said. “It’s the day you turn off your computer, sit down to a beautiful meal together and reconnect as a family.”
Klatzko decided to launch his site when college students living away from home reported a common facet of campus life: homesickness.
“Hillel and Chabad are wonderful,” Klatzko said, referring to two popular Jewish campus groups. “But the kids wanted something homey and I realized that families would be more than happy to invite them… Someone had to make the connection.”
As special as Shabbat can be, when celebrated alone it can be an intensely lonely experience, Klatzko acknowledged, and not just among students.
“There are single mothers, widowed, divorced people. Single people and also travelers,” he said. “That’s why we include the entire community.”
Megan Michaels, a 29-year-old social work student from Passaic, N.J., said Klatzko’s site has meant she’s never had to go solo on Shabbat.
“As a single person, it’s harder to feel part of the community, and See You on Shabbos has opened up the community to me,” she said.
“Through the Web site I’ve met new families who I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise. It’s a good feeling to be invited.”
Michaels mentioned one other unexpected bonus: the eagerness of many hosts to serve as informal matchmakers.
“The families ask what I’m looking for in a spouse. For someone like me, who is newly religious and doesn’t have a family looking out for a match, it’s a way to expand my network.”
Michael Amsellem, who lives in Paris, said it was “particularly cool” to host someone from Boston for Shabbat, via Jewgether.
“It’s not every day that I can sit and get to know an American Jew,”
Amsellem said. “It was an opportunity for real dialogue and we learned each other’s Shabbat melodies and discussed the Bible.”
Jeff Seidel, an American-Israeli whose Jewish Student Information Center has run outreach programs and Shabbat hospitality for almost three decades, said Jews are almost unique in their shared culture, history, language and religion that is rooted in a country — Israel — but not dependent on it.
“We share the Torah, which means we are all part of a long continuous chain. We’re a people and a community. When something happens, both positive or negative, we feel part of it,” Seidel said.
There’s just one nonnegotiable, however. When non-Jews ask Einy why they can’t join Jewgether, he is sympathetic but unbending.
“We have nothing against other cultures and religions, and there are other sites, like Couchsurfing.org, to serve them,” Einy said.
“Sometimes, though, you just have to do something for your own community, your own people.”

Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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