Think of it like the Airbnb of eating: tourists can choose from a list of Israelis who are opening their homes to host strangers and feed them while they’re here on a visit. Unlike Airbnb, of course, the hosts are present when the guests come for dinner.
There are a handful of social dining apps and organizations — Betzavta, Delicious Israel, EatWith, and Shabbat of a Lifetime, to name a few — that connect hosts with tourists to offer a local experience through food.
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Niv Saar and Ori Pearl, software engineers by day, founded Betzavta as a way to share with others the warm Israeli hospitality and “experience of meeting new friends.” Their website service matches guests with non-professional hosts and hope both sides will forge new friendships.
Saar hopes Eurovision’s visitors, expected in droves in May, will take the time to taste real Israeli life and treat themselves to getting to know the locals.
“The goal of Betzavta hosts is to make the tourist feel at home in Israel,” Saar says. “Both sides can learn about one another’s cultures. The visitors gets to see an authentic side of Israel. It’s more than a nice flavor in a restaurant or a beautiful view. It is something that stays with you.”
Inbal Baum, founder of Delicious Israel, a service that offers culinary tours and tasty experiences in Tel Aviv, says people are keen on having local experiences when traveling.
“I think today everyone wants to feel like a local, they want to see people’s houses and get inside and see how people live. In Tel Aviv, and Israel in general, there is such a huge range. I think the main experiences people get are insight and fun. They get to experience what a Shabbat dinner can be,” Baum tells NoCamels. “They feel comfortable and at home and they love, love, love that feeling of someone opening the door to them.”
The practice of inviting strangers into one’s home for a meal has become common around the world. EatWith, founded in 2012 by Israelis Guy Michlin and Shemer Schwartz is likely the most well-known service to connect locals and tourists over a meal, and now offers culinary experiences in over 130 countries.
In Israel, everyone from home cooks to chefs post invitations on the EatWith website and visitors must book in advance to take part. EatWith caters to groups – which can include a mix of visitors and Israelis, all interested in the same culinary theme on the menu.
Betzavta and Delicious Israel aim for a genuine family-style meal. There is no set menu, and dishes are usually what the hosts would eat at a family Shabbat dinner regardless of whether international visitors are at the table or not.
There could be Israeli salad or roasted eggplants, roasted chicken or spicy fish.
Each of the home-dining services match hosts to visitors in a different way.
Betzavta has an online platform that helps connect visitors with hosts. Since arriving on the scene in February 2017, some 600 people have been hosted.
“We are trying to focus on the quality of the match. I don’t want you host just anyone who is coming. I want to make the best match for you. We try to satisfy the host and the tourist,” says Saar. “I try to find similarities, vegans, vegetarians, people in similar businesses, etc. I want the interaction to be more than dinner and offer a better probability to become friends.”
“What an amazing evening, one of our best in Israel! ” writes Alex, of Russia, on the Betzavta website. “Not only our host was very warm and welcoming, they prepared a delicious dinner full of traditional dishes. Every minute was filled with laughter and joy, we have truly made new lifelong friends. This was the highlight of our trip and we would recommend it to anyone traveling to Israel.”
“I fell in love with Israel all over again after having dinner in Tel-Aviv with five of the kindest strangers I had ever met,” writes Elysia from Washington, DC. “The conversation, the food, and the laughter created an unforgettable experience that brought together people from opposite sides of the world. In those few hours that we all gathered around the table, eating, drinking, and sharing our stories, I witnessed the breathtaking mosaic of Israeli life, and the unadulterated interactions between complete strangers who, by the end of the evening, became my friends.”
“When we started this,” says Saar, “we thought, ‘what experiences do we enjoy most when traveling. And we realized it is meeting a new friend. Betzavta, which means ‘together’ in Hebrew, brings travelers and locals together, to create meaningful interactions, and maybe also long-lasting friendships.”
Baum says she’s been hosting out-of-towners and random guests ever since she can remember. She says it is a “natural feeling” for her to open her home to share a meal with visitors. At Delicious Israel, she asks visitors and host families a few questions but leaves possible friendships to chance.
“We don’t really match people. We want it to be a random mix. Anyone who is open enough to open their home and anyone who is open enough to want to be in someone’s house are open enough to get a wildcard experience,” says Baum, who adds that Delicious Israel has more requests by visitors than homes available and would love to hear from Tel Aviv-based families willing to host. “If a family asks for a family, we’ll do our best. A lot of times it’s fun to have the random mix.”
Viva Sarah Press is a journalist and speaker. She writes and talks about the creativity and innovation taking place in Israel and beyond. www.vivaspress.com