Marriage in the Holy Land: BYU Jerusalem professor’s wife says Jerusalem shaped her marriage

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Study abroad programs in the Holy Land have opened two big chapters in the lives of a Jerusalem Center professor and his wife.

JoAnna Woods and her husband, professor Fred Woods, have a unique affinity for the Holy Land — they started their marriage there. Now, more than three decades since their study abroad/honeymoon in Jerusalem, they’re back — this time as Jerusalem Center faculty.

The Woods family pose for a photo together while In Jerusalem on BYU Study Abroad. Photo by Joe Moxon.
The Woods family pose for a photo together while In Jerusalem on BYU Study Abroad. Photo by Joe Moxon.

JoAnna Merrill spent the fall of 1979 preparing for her own big adventure as a student in the Jerusalem program, but after all her fees were paid and all her ducks were in a row, she got engaged to Fred Woods. It seemed as though going to Jerusalem was going to be off the table until someone from the Jerusalem program called with an invitation.

“They called and said, ‘Hey, how soon can you get married?’” JoAnna Woods said. “I said ‘What?’ Then they said, ‘Yeah, if you can get married within three weeks, then you can go to Jerusalem as a couple for the same price.’ And we said, ‘Hmm … that sounds like a good deal.'”

At present, students who want to attend BYU’s Jerusalem Center can’t be married. But before the Jerusalem Center was built and opened to students in 1989, the study abroad program needed dorm couples to help things run smoothly.

“It just felt right to us,” JoAnna Woods said. “When he said we could go together, this peace came over us like it was actually in the plan — like it was meant to be. So we were married on Dec. 15, 1979, in the Salt Lake Temple, and we were on the Jerusalem trip three weeks later for a six-month honeymoon in the Holy Land.”

It was a honeymoon that wouldn’t just celebrate their marriage, but shape it. For one thing, it was this time studying the scriptures in the land of the Bible that convinced Fred Woods he wanted to work in the Church Educational System (CES). But for another, it taught the Woodses to rely on each other.

“It was a fabulous thing for a marriage,” JoAnna Woods said. “It could probably even make you or break you, right? We were together 24/7, and we just flourished. We learned really quickly to completely depend on each other — we had no family to run to, we had no friends to go complain to — we just had each other to work everything out, so it was a great thing for a marriage. I’m all for people getting married and moving away.”

The ensuing years have been good to the Woods family. While her husband advanced in his career and educational pursuits —  including earning a doctorate in Middle East Studies from the University of Utah with an emphasis in Hebrew Bible — JoAnna Woods stayed home and raised their five children. More recently, she began providing postpartum doula services for new mothers. Needless to say, they’ve been busy, but they have never forgotten the lesson they learned as newlywed students in Jerusalem: to rely on each other and support one another.

Last fall, JoAnna Woods was asked to support her husband in a major way, when an opportunity he had been waiting years for finally came: to return to the Holy Land as a professor. Though her memories of Jerusalem were fond, she knew saying goodbye to five children, five granddaughters, two widowed mothers and her work as a postpartum doula for a year would not be easy.

But plenty of students are thankful she was willing to make the sacrifice and go to Jerusalem, including Molly Flanigan, 22, an exercise and wellness major from Great Falls, Virginia, who recently returned from the Jerusalem Center.

“It was humbling for me to observe Sister Woods while we were in Jerusalem. It probably wasn’t her first choice to go to Jerusalem, but I thought it was really cool how she supported her husband there while he pursued his career goals,” she said.

One of Flanigan’s classmates, Logan Foutz, 27, who graduated from BYU upon his return from Jerusalem in April, was impressed by JoAnna Woods’ genuine love for the students.

“One thing that stood out in my mind about Sister Woods was that she was always so willing to love us … but was even more excited for us to realize and accept that God sees us as much more than we imagine ourselves to be. You feel that when she speaks to you,” he said.

JoAnna Woods and her husband Fred Woods wave to students while on a Study Abroad in the Holy Land. Photo by Joe Moxon
JoAnna Woods and her husband Fred Woods wave to students while on a Study Abroad in the Holy Land. Photo by Joe Moxon

But it’s not just her loving kindness that attracts students to JoAnna Woods; it’s her playfulness as well. It wasn’t uncommon for a student on a field trip in the heat of the day to feel an icy chill down his or her spine, only to turn around and see Joanna Woods giggling with an emptied, upside-down water bottle in her hand.

Her son, Freddy Woods, 21, a pre-communications major from Springville, Utah, who spent winter semester in the Jerusalem Center, said she has always been fun, playful and optimistic.

“She’s one of the most optimistic people I know,” Freddy Woods said. “In Jerusalem, especially, she’s done really well, even though it has been hard on her. She has kept a good attitude, and I think it helped the students too. She has a contagious personality. It has been really hard on our mom to be away from the grandkids — she hates that part — but she has still always been happy and optimistic.”

Lots of students would agree with him. In fact, students last fall enjoyed being around her so much that they approached her husband, who serves as Jerusalem’s branch president, and asked if he would consider tag teaming with her to teach a marriage preparation class for Sunday school. Their class is easily the most attended class every week.

“It was a hit! People loved it, and my parents have loved teaching it together,” Freddy Woods said.

Freddy’s younger sister, Shirley Woods, 19, a pre-humanities major from Springville, also participated in the Jerusalem Center program winter semester. The youngest of the Woods children, she had hardly been out of the house for a few days when her parents left for Jerusalem. She is used to having to “share her mom” with 71 other students.

“Sharing Mom? Nothing new,” Shirley Woods said. “She is a mother figure wherever she goes. People are always confiding in her. She just has a fun, inviting energy. But we also got lots of one-on-one time — especially before all the other students arrived.”

Freddy and Shirley Woods flew to Jerusalem early to spend the Christmas holidays with their parents in the Holy Land between semesters, and that time was particularly memorable to them.

“My favorite place to go with Mom was the Church of All Nations in the Garden of Gethsemane: it was usually empty, and we could go there and be in the church alone and worship on our own or sometimes watch other people worship if they were there. We had a lot of good little moments,” Shirley Woods said.

Her mother also loved the one-on-one time with her kids and said that her “favorite thing about being back in Jerusalem was being able to watch our children experience what we experienced as students.”

“Seeing them experience these things was such a high for us,” JoAnna Woods said. “It was much more fun than us re-experiencing them. It was like Christmas! By the time you’re parents, Christmas isn’t about what you get anymore; it’s so fun to watch your kids open a present. It’s just so much more fun than you getting one. So that’s what it’s like being here with our kids coming,” JoAnna Woods said.

Now, with the end of summer term drawing nearer, JoAnna Woods and her husband will soon return home, but to an “empty nest” for the first time since their family was started. So when she isn’t playing with the grandkids or helping new mothers as a postpartum doula, she’ll have some time to reflect on her experiences in Jerusalem. But when Jerusalem Center students from the 2013–2014 school year reflect on their Jerusalem experiences, they’re sure to remember JoAnna Woods.

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