BYU Jerusalem center students share their experiences being in Jerusalem

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BYU Jerusalem Center students on the last day of class with BYU Professor Mark Ellison. BYU Jerusalem Center students completed three of their classes during their time in Greece. (Annie Lewis)

In light of the current Israel-Hamas conflict, recently returned BYU Jerusalem Center students shared their experiences of being in Jerusalem when the war broke out and how they felt about coming home sooner than expected. 

After the conflict broke out on Oct. 7, the BYU Jerusalem Center asked students to remain inside the center. Academic instruction continued as usual and students, faculty and their families traveled to Greece on Oct. 15 — one week earlier than originally scheduled in the center’s program. Instead of returning to Jerusalem, students returned home on Oct. 31.

“The situation, I mean, just started completely unexpectedly,” BYU sophomore Samuel Johnson said. “We woke up one morning, and I was in the shower and they started knocking on my door saying, ‘We gotta get to the bomb shelter, there’s missiles being fired.’”

Jews gathered at the Western Wall for the Feast of the Tabernacles. Students studied Judaism at the BYU Jerusalem Center. (Samuel Johnson)

Johnson explained because the conflict was so unexpected, many students experienced fear, confusion and uncertainty.

BYU junior Annie Lewis shared being wrapped up in the Israel-Hamas conflict was eye-opening and felt very close to home since they had spent time learning about both cultures and traditions and had developed close connections with both Israeli and Palestinian faculty.

“It really opened a lot of our eyes to the dangers of conflict (and) the intense struggle that people face when they’re inside of that kind of situation,” Lewis said. “Many of the people that we interacted with at the center had family members and friends who were directly involved with the conflict and on the front lines.”

To ensure the students’ safety, the BYU Jerusalem Center kept close tabs on the conflict and asked students and faculty to remain inside the center.

“They took so many precautions to make sure that we were okay … (and) you could tell that they cared,” Lewis said.

According to Lewis, these precautions included a sound security system and entering a bomb shelter each time the sirens would go off.

BYU sophomore Lia Whisenant expressed gratitude for all BYU did to ensure their safety but said resources for those struggling with anxiety and other mental health issues were limited.

“For some people it was enough to talk it through with their peers, but for other people I think they needed a little bit more support,” Whisenant said.

After sheltering in place for eight days, Whisenant and Johnson said they experienced mixed emotions knowing they would soon leave Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Center staff behind to arrive in Greece a week earlier than originally scheduled.

Whisenant shared how her initial disappointment regarding leaving Jerusalem transformed into a “heart-wrenching” concern for those who had to stay behind.

Students leaving the BYU Jerusalem Center. Students left the BYU Jerusalem Center on Oct. 15. (Annie Lewis)

“I seriously was so concerned about the people we were leaving behind,” Whisenant said. “We have an amazing staff at the BYU Jerusalem Center, and knowing that circumstances were dangerous enough for us to have to leave made me so sad that those were people that had to stay.”

However, Whisenant, Johnson and Lewis expressed they felt a lot of peace and relief upon their arrival in Greece.

“Greece was definitely like a safe haven for all of us, and we had lots of important experiences together there,” Lewis said.

According to Whisenant, students received news that they would be returning home near the end of their first week in Greece. Following the announcement of their departure, the students did their best to make the most of the time they had left together. 

Now at home, Whisenant, Johnson and Lewis expressed gratitude for their BYU Jerusalem experience.

“I am so grateful for what I did experience … and the people that I was with. I feel like we all really bonded during this time that was super uncertain,” Lewis said. “I would not trade it for a different semester even though it was cut short.”

Lewis also said returning home has been interesting and given her the added challenge of figuring out what comes next.

“We were running … in Jerusalem, doing so many things every single day … and now I’ve come home to basically no plans, so I’ve kind of just had to start fresh and try and figure out my life from this point,” Lewis said.

Lewis and Johnson shared that many students plan to use this time to travel and explore other parts of the world. They also explained because of the way classes were scheduled, students were able to finish the majority of their coursework in Greece. BYU Jerusalem students will be taking their finals this week and will continue their Ancient Near Eastern Studies class via Zoom until the end of the semester.

A group of BYU Jerusalem students pose for a photo in front of the Old City. There were 93 students at the BYU Jerusalem Center this fall semester. (Samuel Johnson)

Considering how this experience shaped her, Whisenant explained she learned a lot of spiritual lessons and saw the power of community.

Reflecting Whisenant’s thoughts, Lewis said her time in Jerusalem was an opportunity to learn what it means to “let God prevail” and to “prevail with God.” She also shared the significance of the amount of days they spent in Jerusalem. 

“We spent a total of 40 days (in Jerusalem) and I think that’s really significant because we know that Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness, and the Israelites struggled through the wilderness for 40 days, and … I think a lot of us have looked at those examples and learned for ourselves that the 40 days that we had are consecrated and meant for our gain,” Lewis said.

Impacted by their experience and desiring to give back, Johnson and Lewis said students have organized a GoFundMe to raise money for those impacted by the conflict in Gaza. Funds that are received will be donated to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ efforts in Israel. Those interested in supporting this effort can visit their GoFundMe here.

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