On the BYU Jerusalem Center

The BYU Jerusalem Center is celebrating an anniversary this year, and they’ve asked alumni to write up what the center meant to them. Never one to pass up an opportunity to speak about something, here are a few stream of consciousness thoughts about an experience that’s far too big for me to be able to adequately find the words to describe it:

In the summer of 2000, I headed over to Israel for a short 8 week semester abroad in Jerusalem. Heading into the experience, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting into. I didn’t know anyone else in the group. Before my mission (in 1997), I’d taken a class at BYU on Jerusalem, and that had really made me interested in going there someday. At the time, getting to go was a fairly competitive process. There were a limited number of positions each semester, and you had to apply and basically hope you got lucky.

Those eight weeks were flat out incredible. I made so many friends and had so many experiences that I still look back on today. Friends I’m still in touch with. Experiences that changed who I was and how I thought. During those eight weeks, I took classes on Jewish and Arab culture and language as well as the Old and New Testament. It was this mixture of learning about the history of the places we traveled, their context in current events, and their connections to major world religions that helped make everything so riveting.

For those eight weeks, we stayed at the BYU Jerusalem Center as a sort of anchor, heading out for expeditions to the outlying areas of Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. We stayed at a kibbutz on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Explored the ruins of Petra (where the finale of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was filmed). Hiked Mount Sinai to watch the sun rise. Explored the nooks and crannies of the Old City. Read scriptures in the Garden of Gethsemane. Floated in the Dead Sea. Trekked to the Masada Fortress.

These were places I’d read about my entire life. Areas that appeared in the Bible, but which I’d somehow never really thought of as real. There’s a huge difference between reading about history and being in the place where it happened. Up until Jerusalem, I’d always thought I’d been to some pretty old places. As an American, I thought a trip to Europe had shown me what “old” was. Seeing where Shakespeare lived, or visiting a medieval ruin. In the Middle East, I regularly went to sites that dated back one or two thousand years BC, if not earlier.

Was it safe? Debatable. I’ve never seen so many guns carried in public as I did in the Old City. You’d regularly walk past police armed to the hilt. There were several attacks while I was there, and our tours had to be rescheduled accordingly. That said, from all the news stories I’d read before I went over there, I’d expected to find myself in a war zone the entire time. That wasn’t the case. Typically, life was normal. You could walk where you wanted, visit places, eat food (the food!), and have fun. I met lovely people on both sides of the conflict: Israelis and Palestinians.

And let me just say about more about the food. Hummus. Falafel. Pita bread. Even the cafeteria food was delicious. We had a traditional seder dinner one evening. We ate with Bedouin nomads. We had street food in the old city. Again, I’d thought I’d experienced different cultures in Europe, but I’d never come across anything like I did in Jerusalem. Even shopping was an adventure. Haggling for the best price on a chess set or leather sandals. Scouring the market of Cairo for just the right souvenir.

I did everything I could to get the most out of that trip. I tried to enjoy every moment, from the time we were woken up by the call to prayer coming from the neighborhood of the center to the time in the evening when I would sit on the lawn of the center, listening to music (Van Halen, if you were wondering) and looking out over the Old City.

One day, I hope to be able to go back. In some ways, I think I was too young to appreciate everything the trip had to offer. Then again, in others, I think I was just the right age. An age where experiences were still new, and 8 weeks could feel like a lifetime. Maybe my kids will get lucky and be able to go. I would gladly pay the tuition for them, if they could have the same sort of experience I had 20 years ago.

How do you put a price on a trip that changes your life?


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