Most of us are familiar with the online phenomenon called Couchsurfing, the hospitality and social networking website that enables travelers to stay on strangers’ couches (and sometimes even to score a bed) for free. Five years ago, 48-year-old Raz Spector decided to take this model and apply it to a kind of book-club framework. He also admits that his depleted social circle might have had something to do with it.
Whatever the exact impetus, BookSurfing was born after Spector, a native Israeli, had been traveling in Asia for seven years. “It was probably a way to create a social circle for myself of people who love text and discussing text as much as I do,” Spector shares. “This was back in the summer of 2013. Now we have a Wikipedia entry. At first they said we hadn’t been around long enough, but time works in your favor when you’re a social phenomenon. After 3,000 surfs, they decided we deserved a Wiki entry.”
For Spector, who has a master’s of philosophy degree from Princeton, BookSurfing began as a philosophical experiment at its core. He wanted to know if these events could have unique value. Surfs involve a group of people, typically seven or eight, each of whom brings a short text to share with the group. The very first surf was in Tel Aviv and had seven people. Three never came back and three became dedicated, regular surfers. Not a bad retention rate for the first surf ever.
“It was a rather exciting, weird event that first one,’ Spector recalls. “I started realizing afterwards that to allow this thing to spread its wings, I needed to work on the infrastructure – the local organizers. I beefed up the Facebook presence and created groups to make it accessible to everyone in Israel and gradually abroad as well.”
Spector’s foray into social media proved fruitful. BookSurfing’s general Facebook page has approximately 5,700 likes, and the initiative itself has over a thousand active participants in Israel, with 15 local groups spread throughout the country (Hebrew groups in a dozen different areas, with two English-speaking groups and one in French). Surfs are happening consistently in areas such as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Hasharon, Haifa, and Safed. Each group has its own Facebook presence with its own administrator who posts the events where group members who live in that area can attend.
There are currently active surfs in 10 cities outside of Israel, in regions as diverse as Mexico City, Washington, DC, and Cambridge, England. Spector emphasizes that although the mechanism is pretty much the same in any surf anywhere, the frequency of meetings depends entirely on the administrator.
“That is, in fact, the weakness of the model because the administrator usually has other things to do,” Spector adds. “It’s production work and their ability to do that regularly is limited. Most groups meet once a month, but then in Hasharon for instance, there are six surfs per month, and in Gush Dan, there are 12 surfs per month.”
THE BOOKSURFING format is fairly straightforward and consists of six simple rules:
1. Everybody must read. The model won’t work if some attendees are just sitting and listening; everybody has to be engaged.
2. A surf can either be open with no specific topic, or it can have a pre-agreed topic that determines the text that surfers bring.
3. There is a text limit of 450 words. No one has license to read from their diary for a half an hour, or to read an entire chapter of War and Peace.
4. There must always be a newcomer. This is important, as BookSurfing is not a closed club.
5. Some of the people present must not know each other and have never met before. This brings in the element of a first date, which makes BookSurfing unique. To think of the fact that in each of the 3,000 surfs, people were meeting each other for the first time is rather incredible.
6. There has to be a moderator present to facilitate the flow of the surf, and ensure not only that the rest of the rules are being followed, but that everyone is given enough time to read and share on each reading.
ANY TEXT can be read, but it’s mostly literature. No one checks what text participants are bringing, and no one knows what they will be. This yields all kinds of unexpected sources and surprises. Thus, BookSurfing is reliant upon a certain amount of trust that participants will bring texts that are relevant and interesting to the other surfers. There is also an element of accepting what comes.
“We live in a very fragmented world,” Spector explains. “On the one hand, we are exposed to much more information than our brains can handle, and we can be connected to many more people. On the other hand, it makes us feel very isolated because we recognize that there are all these sub-groups with which we have nothing in common. There is a great flow of information and also incredible alienation. Who are these people? Everybody thinks that they are about 98% of the population, who they believe to be outside of their social interaction sphere. BookSurfing showcases a common denominator: the love of text. It allows us to recognize that we have something in common and that there are various dimensions to explore together.”
Themes are usually chosen by the hosts, and have run the gamut from the color blue, recently deceased Israeli author Amos Oz, to the country of India. “You need to be open-minded to join a surf,” Spector continues.
“If you’re haredi [ultra-Orthodox], you are welcome to come, and we’ve had some haredim. But it’s challenging. Any subculture that is relatively closed finds it difficult to deal with perspectives that are very alien to it. In BookSurfing, that’s the essence of the practice; a glimpse into the lives, perspectives, and textual worlds of totally different people. The discussions are quite intimate: seven or eight people sharing for three hours.
“It’s not like a poetry reading, a dance party, or a festival, where you can keep your anonymity somewhat. You really need to engage with the other members of the group. It’s not so easy for ultra-religious people, for example. I was recently in a surf with the topic of sexuality. People were sharing about the times they caught their parents doing it, and was it then discussed or not discussed by the parents. It was spontaneous sharing that happens and not everyone will feel comfortable with that.”
In terms of BookSurfing’s demographics, there is still room for improvement. Spector noticed that during Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, BookSurfing’s community was comprised of 800 active participants, but there were no Arabs. Spector decided to produce surfs in various Arab cities and managed to engage Arab surfers. Since then, there have been many Arab moderators and participants. However, in the current climate in Israel, Spector emphasizes that a certain amount of effort is required and that it’s swimming against the current to try and make the surfs less homogeneous.
THE DEFAULT option is still Jews meeting Jews and Arabs meeting Arabs. Although there have been many mixed surfs in the Galil and Haifa. “In Jerusalem and in Jaffa for example, it has been tricky because there is more of a divide between Arabs and Jews,” Spector states.
“It’s also about priorities. For instance, we’ve had several surfs in prisons; in Hermon [a white collar institution] and Tzalmon [for more serious crimes]. If that’s a priority, you have to exert energy to make it continue to happen. So if you want Arabs or haredi Jews to join more, you have to exert energy. It doesn’t happen by itself. BookSurfing tends to bring people who are middle class to upper-middle class, educated, leaning slightly to the Left politically, and around 40 to 60 years old. Again, if we want to get more 25-year-olds, we’d need to exert effort. Birds of a feather flock together.”
BookSurfing’s activities are strongest in Israel’s center: Ra’anana, Herzliya, Kfar Saba, Tel Aviv, and Holon. It is, of course, significantly easier to draw the needed number for a surf in the more populated areas. Spector still moderates or participates in surfs about once or twice a month. He used to accompany new moderators to help guide them, but now there is team that takes care of that, consisting of Michal Brown and Naama Zur. They create and offer training workshops for new moderators.
BookSurfing now has 50 moderators in total and dozens of volunteers who help the initiative run smoothly. Volunteers may work as moderators, but they also take charge of certain aspects of the project. For instance, Nitza Toledano is in charge of handling everything having to do with hosting surfs in libraries throughout Israel, something that has become increasingly popular.
Shira Reshef is in charge of the website. The entity is able to grow and respond efficiently to increased interest because of this evolving body of volunteers. Spector points out, however, that BookSurfing remains without a real source of revenue. There is no participation fee for surfers.
“I don’t want the activity to be a product; I want it to be a service,” Spector adds. “It’s a handicap, but it’s worth it because it keeps the activity pristine. The volunteers understand this vision and dedicate significant portions of their time on a monthly basis to perpetuate it.”
BookSurfing became a registered NGO in 2016, and a small team of board members pay a nominal yearly membership fee. Libraries, elder centers and hotels are charged a small fee to host the surfs, which are happening more and more. In those instances, the BookSurfing team functions as the producers of the events and as moderators as well. This year, there will be between 70 and 90 events of that ilk. This constitutes a small source of revenue, but the hope for the future, like with any NGO, is that they will garner support from a foundation or a government ministry.
Currently, BookSurfing is negotiating with local vineyards and book publishers who may want to give a sponsorship in exchange for exposure among the community of surfers. While it’s a work in progress, it is, for the time being, a light on the horizon.
The question Spector is asking now is how to make the local organizers feel more motivated. This is not only applicable to BookSurfing, but to any social initiative.
“Advertising helps and we can utilize our minimal revenue towards this,” Spector says. “We are working on an advertisement now for foreign admins, which we’ve never done before. Hopefully that will make people approach us, wanting to know more. Monetary compensation would help, but we are not there yet. If we had the backing of the Ministry of Culture or a philanthropist, we could say to someone, ‘Look if you launch the first BookSurfing event in Seoul or Rio, we will give you some kind of stipend and we’ll help you with the initial steps.’ Starting from scratch is tricky. It’s much easier to launch the 16th BookSurfing chapter in Israel because the infrastructure is already here. For expansion abroad, we really need collaboration with ministries or foundations.
Theoretically, there is nothing particularly Israeli about BookSurfing. Potential administrators and moderators abroad should be able to pick up the baton and run with it. But it is clear that a connection with some sort of institutionalized entity that would want to help promote the initiative, and a love of text which is arguably dying out with each new generation, will bring it to the next level. For now, it continues to be surfs up.
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