Students Experience Religion and Culture at the Jerusalem Center

By on April 8, 2008.

By Abigail Shaha

In fall 2000, 790 students were sent to live and study at the BYU Jerusalem Center. They took classes on religion and Middle Eastern history while traveling the region to some of the most ancient and religiously significant cites in the world.

But by 2001, no students were being sent to the center. U.S. military action in Afghanistan coupled with political unrest in the Middle East led church officials to close the Center to students, a church news site said.

“We never closed the center, we just didn”t send students to the center,” said Carri Jenkins, BYU spokesperson. “But it was still open to visitors and weekly concerts.”

Now, seven years later, the BYU Jerusalem Center is celebrating its second year open to students who can once again learn first hand about the religious and cultural gems of this ancient land.

While living at the center, students take a rigorous course load of religion, history and even language classes designed to give students a broad view of the unique culture and people they”re living among.

Two of the history classes offered at the center are Arab and Islamic Civilization, taught by a Palestinian, and Israeli and Jewish Civilization, taught by an Israeli.

Professor James R. Kearl, assistant to the president for the Jerusalem Center, said these classes are mainly history based, one tracing Jewish history and culture from the destruction of the Second Temple to the rise of modern Israel and the other studying the history of Palestinian and Muslim history and culture from the time of Mohammad to the rise of Palestinian nationalism.

The Arabic and Hebrew classes are also taught by an Israeli and a Palestinian, and help students see the relationships between culture and language as well as the structure of these languages, Kearl said.

Students at the Center said the workload was heavy.

“It was probably the hardest semester of my life,” said Brian Graf, a senior from St. George. “It was interesting, but it was really hard and there was a lot of reading.”

Many students said the teachers themselves were learning experiences.

James Archibald, a senior from Allentown, Penn., remembered being surprised at how his Palestinian teacher expected his students to act.

“There was almost some tension,” Archibald said. “You”d lean over to talk to your neighbor and ask what he [the teacher] just said, and he really didn”t like it when we did that. He would stop and tell us we were being disrespectful.”

Archibald also said the teacher expected students to ask questions during class rather than following a lecture.

Melissa Boman, a sophomore from Provo, said she remembered her Israeli teacher talk about moving around during his childhood and finding his identity as a Jew.

But despite the hard workload, students said studying was vital to fully appreciate their surroundings.

“I know if I hadn”t learned what I did in class…it would have just looked like a pile of old rocks,” Graff said.

Students at the Center took frequent field trips to places like the Western Wall, the Church of the Nativity, Golgotha and the Garden of Gethsemane. On longer weekend trips, they visited the Sea of Galilee, the pyramids in Egypt, and even neighboring countries like Jordan.

Kearl said some of these field trips have changed since the program reopened in response to security issues.

“In the 1990s, we had some field trips that went well into the West Bank,” Kearl said. “But now we”ve substituted other field trips into Israel proper, Egypt and Jordan.”

The goal of these field trips is to help the scriptures “come alive” in the land where the events recorded in them took place.

“When you read the Old Testament and the New Testament and you read all the names of the places it just kind of goes over your head,” said Tyson Hafen, a junior from St. George. “But now when I read the scriptures I know where that [the event] occurs.”

For Leslie Carpenter, a junior from Aurora, Colo., that happened as she sang “The Spirit of God” on Mt. of Transfiguration and while she swam in the Red Sea.

“All of the sudden I thought, ”wow, this is the sea that was really parted by Moses”,” Carpenter said.

Boman remembered acting out David and Goliath on the field where it took place.

Graf felt the Christmas story as never before as the group reenacted it from the shepherds fields in July.

“I don”t know that I”ve ever had a more spiritually touching Christmas program in my life, because we were sitting there where it actually happened,” said Graf. “To the naked eye it probably looked like a bunch of dead weeds…but we knew that was where one of the most important things ever took place.”

But Carpenter said what she remembers isn”t a single moment, it”s the lifestyle and the people.

“Here you can separate your school life and social life and spiritual life, but there”s it”s all rolled up,” she said. “You”re with the same people all the time, you have school with them, church with them, you sing with them, you go on the bus with them, you go out shopping with them… you experience every facet of life with them. It”s so intense and so wonderful.”

By the end, every student agreed they”d go back in a heartbeat.

“It was my favorite semester at BYU for sure,” said Hafen, “and I”d done BYU Hawaii.”

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