Honeymooners Arie Katz and Susan Seely didn’t settle for Niagara Falls. Instead, they embarked on a yearlong, worldwide journey of spiritual self-discovery, one that would teach them about their Jewish heritage.
The couple returned to Seely’s childhood home in Newport Beach two weeks ago after visiting a number of Jewish communities--some thriving, others dwindling--in 21 countries. Everywhere they went, they shared their findings with others via the Internet.
Their underlying mission--to learn about Jewish cultures in foreign countries--is what kept a sometimes travel-weary couple pushing forward.
“When we tired of staying in hotels or eating other people’s food, that’s what gave us a focus and kept us going,” Katz said.
Katz, who was born in Johannesburg, was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, then settled in Boston, where there was an established South African Jewish community. Seely’s interests and studies led her to convert to Judaism a few years ago, and as a Middle East trade specialist, she dealt with Jewish culture regularly.
Both Katz and Seely were active in a number of national and international Jewish organizations in Boston. When they decided to marry, they knew they would eventually move to California and settle in new jobs. They saw their honeymoon as a window of opportunity for a soul-enriching adventure and, taking money they would otherwise have used to buy a house, chose to go globe-trotting.
It was also important to them to share their discoveries along their journey with the worldwide Jewish community--and anyone else with a thirst for travel.
Touching bases along the way with a friend who had agreed to maintain their Web site, Katz and Seely made sure they were armed with a laptop computer and a digital camera, which never left their sides during the trip.
The two then quit their jobs in Boston. Katz, 30, a corporate lawyer, and Seely, 31, a trade specialist, said they knew the decision would mean financial hardship, but the reward would be worth the sacrifice.
“We are poorer in the pocket but richer in experience,” Katz said.
The couple learned about living sparingly, amid poverty, and looked to their spiritual roots for comfort. Along the way they marveled at the seemingly unceasing hospitality of complete strangers.
Their first stop was Hawaii. Then came Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, India, Dubai, Jordan, Israel, South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, England, France, Portugal, Spain, Gibraltar and Morocco.
Many of the places they visited are not considered centers of Judaism, a fact that actually propelled the couple’s decision to visit such unique locations.
“We are very centered on the American Jewish community or think of Eastern Europe” as important Jewish centers, Seely said. “That’s one reason why we did this. . . . We wanted to go and discover ourselves through others. Most people would never think that there’s a Jewish community in Bombay.”
The couple was particularly taken with India and the Jewish community there, where they celebrated Simah Torah, the Jewish day of rejoicing in the law.
“It was an incredible experience to celebrate there. Some Jewish communities astounded us with their history and their warmth,” Katz said.
Other places, like Australia and South Africa, did not greet the couple with as much warmth as the couple might have expected from countries with large and well-established Jewish populations.
They made efforts to meet with Jewish leaders in each country, letting them know about their Internet project.
But they did not limit their religious exploration to Judaism.
They shook hands with the Dalai Lama in India, an event the couple said was one of the most profound experiences of the trip.
“That was a really moving moment for us because we have so much respect for him,” Seely said.
And their travel experiences were not restricted to religion. They scuba dived and took cooking lessons in Thailand and swam with dolphins and whale sharks off the coast of Mozambique.
It was in Morocco that they realized how Jewish communities can disappear. The Jewish community there, which thrived in the 1940s, is now dying out and is likely to disappear in 25 years, Katz said. Without any current record of the community’s existence, they said, it could be forgotten.
The couple sent such documentation via an Internet service provider to the friend who maintained their Web site.
Through the site, they ended up receiving e-mail responses from people they never met, including many in Seely’s home in Orange County.
“We received e-mails from around the world. The laptop ended up being this wonderful mailbox of ours,” Seely said.
They continue to maintain the site, at www.jwconnection.com.
Although they strayed from paths well worn by tourists and avoided conflict and illness for most of the trip, their journey was almost derailed when Seely became infected with strep throat the day before they left India. Then she was afflicted by a reaction to the strep infection that made her legs and feet swell.
That was six months into the journey, and luckily, Katz had acquaintances in South Africa and managed to get her the proper medication so they could continue.
The last leg of their trip took them back to Boston, and the return gave them a dose of culture shock.
“You’re moving every four days on average to each city,” Katz said. “You’re constantly moving, and then we get to Boston and it’s like hitting a wall.”
Seely said the journey has made them understand the intangibles they possess. “There’s nothing like traveling to make you appreciate what you have--the rights, freedoms, the choices that we really only have here,” she said.
Now not only are the couple faced with job interviews and settling in their new home on Balboa Island, they have 2,500 pictures to sort through, many of them yet to be developed, and 100 pages of Seely’s writings.
The couple won’t be taking any extended trips overseas for a long time, and the place they’d most like to explore next is this country.
“There’s a lot to see in the United States, and after a trip like this you learn to appreciate what you have in your own backyard.”