Almost four years ago, at the age of 51, I stepped out of my comfort zone and began opening my door to strangers—call it a mid-life crisis that turned into a mid-life opportunity.
In the summer of 2013, I became acquainted with Couchsurfing.com, an online community that connects travelers who seek lodging with local hosts who want to offer it. For free.
I learned about Couchsurfing, which boasts approximately 14 million users from as many as 200,000 cities worldwide, from public radio. In the process of checking it out, I inadvertently set up a partially complete profile. Shortly thereafter, I began receiving regular requests from travelers looking for a place to stay in Los Angeles, where I currently reside. As a “nice Jewish boy” with anxiety issues, you can imagine what kind of angst this brought up for me. I asked myself: Am I brave enough to open my door to a stranger? My parents, family, and friends, asked incredulously: “You’re doing what? And for free? How do you know you’ll be safe?”
Admittedly, I shared these questions and concerns but my curiosity got the better of me. One Saturday evening in January 2014, six months after first learning about Couchsurfing, I welcomed into my home my first surfer (as the guests are called), an Israeli named Erez with whom I’d spoken on the phone in advance of his one-night stay.
Though I opened the door to Erez with butterflies in my stomach, the anxiety soon gave way to the adventure that this unknown world could offer. The fact that Erez was Israeli, and that we shared a religious and cultural connection, paved the way. Soon we were sitting in my living room, sharing drinks and talking about our lives. And it seemed that the culture of Couchsurfing, a culture I was just beginning to understand, was built to encourage hosts and surfers to share their stories. The simple act of two people getting to know one another and Erez’s openness gave me a glimpse of the possibilities the future could bring. And the fact that Erez was polite, neat, respectful and appreciative also allayed my concerns about the chaos a stranger might bring into the order and safety of my home. I began to imagine all the people I could meet.
I have been opening my door to surfers ever since then, and every time I do, I open myself up to a new story, which enlarges my world and theirs. I have opened my home to surfers from Taiwan, New Zealand, Iran, Russia, Germany, Azerbaijan, Colombia, Malaysia, South Korea, and so many more. I have welcomed more than 60 guests over the last three years, and the number has only been limited by my own logistical constraints. My guests are gay, straight, male, female, young and old, married and single. They are students and professionals, explorers and travelers, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Buddhists.
For many of my guests, I am one of the first Jewish people they have come to know, and many have expressed an interest in learning more about what Judaism is all about.One particularly memorable and meaningful visit was when I hosted Emile (a Maronite Catholic born of Lebanese parents) and his Taiwanese girlfriend on their way to meet his family in Ohio. Emile and I quickly hit it off, engaging in late-night talks about life and our respective religious beliefs. One morning when he and his girlfriend stayed home, Emile texted me at work about heating up the treyf leftovers they had brought home from a restaurant the night before. Because my home is kosher, I assessed by phone what “damage” was being done and instructed him about what to do with the now treyf plate and utensils. Mortified that this was how he had repaid my hospitality, Emile began to research what kosher meant, embarrassed that he was so unfamiliar with the concept. In the end, this episode did what I believe Couchsurfing is meant to do: break down barriers between people who would otherwise perhaps have never met. Three years later, Emile and I continue to have long conversations on the phone about life, faith, and what brings meaning to our lives.
Hosting strangers has expanded my understanding of the world and has brought unexpected new friendships into my life. What began as a big step outside of my comfort zone (that is, inviting strangers into my comfort zone) has led me on a great and unexpected adventure, not the least part of which has led me to contemplate what it means to be a stranger. A story from rabbinic tradition which I often share at Passover asks the question: “When can you tell that the night has ended and the day has begun?” The answer, we are taught is: “When you look into the eyes of any man or woman, and you see the eyes of your brother or sister. If you do not see the eyes of your brother or sister in the eyes of any stranger, then no matter what time it is, it is still night.”