Surf­ing waves of words

The Is­raeli-born ini­tia­tive BookSurf­ing brings peo­ple to­gether through a love of lit­er­a­ture

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By ARIEL DOMINIQUE HENDELMAN

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.

(Shay Wasser)

A RE­CENT surf in Tel Aviv on ‘Get­ting Lost,’ in English.

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