BYU’s Jerusalem Center: A Middle Eastern Jewel

By Jordan Carroll

The Brigham Young U. Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies is a limestone jewel set in the Mount of Olives in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

Local Palestinian vendors can immediately spot any student from the “The Mormon University” wandering the Roman age cobblestone alleys of the Old City. But BYU students did not always wander the Christian Quarter.

The program abruptly halted in 2001 due to dangerous political and religious turmoil involving Muslims and Jews.

For six years, the Jerusalem Center’s stone floors were still swept. The Biblical grounds were tended to. Tourists still filed through to admire its award-winning architecture. The Jerusalem Branch continued to meet in the auditorium. But four of the center’s eight floors remained hollow.

In 2007, Jerusalem and parts of Israel were finally deemed sufficiently safe for students to travel to and explore. Faculty and staff brought the center out of the moth balls to once again host about 80 students.

“When it opened, the Palestinian merchants knew we were coming back,” said BYU religion professor Ray Huntington, who has taught nearly seven years at the Jerusalem Center. “They were excited. This signaled to the LDS tour industry, if students were safe, we’ll be safe. The branch was excited to have the students back. The presence of students in Jerusalem, with just 84, is felt and is a positive influence on the city as representatives of the BYU universities.”

The first semesters of the reopened center seemed to be an experiment to the faculty, wondering if it could really be done and still maintain student safety. Then they realized the program was there to stay.

“Something about the program is life-changing,” Huntington said. “You gain a great appreciation for what you left, for freedoms. There is a lot of tension and turmoil. You count your blessings. It would take something very, very serious and very threatening to [student] safety to close it. The program has the intention to stay there. It is not an experiment any longer.”

Jerusalem Center Director S. Kent Brown is thankful for the chance to return.

“I thought that I would never see an opportunity to return,” he said. “So I have been grateful to come back and renew old friendships and to make new friends of those who have come to join us.”

Since the Jerusalem Center’s original opening in 1987, changes have been made and its purposes have expanded. In the past decade, security has become an upmost priority. Students walk the streets with cell phones around their necks, equipped with GPS tracking and emergency text alerts.

When traveling through more volatile areas like the West Bank or Jericho, the center’s security team follows. Though these extra precautions are taken, faculty members continually emphasize the safety and friendship found in this area of the Middle East.

“I think many Americans think all Arabs in the region are terrorists,” said Chad Emmett, a professor currently teaching and living with his family of five at the Jerusalem Center. “It is so nice to see students meet Arabs, especially Muslim Arabs in the neighborhood, in town and on field trips and come to know them as nice, friendly, regular human beings. Come. It is safe. It will change your life for the better.”

Students cannot travel to places once open in the 1980s or 1990s like Hebron or Nablus, but the program is slowly returning to its original status while adapting to the conflict of the 21st century. On its website, security updates are posted as they arise, the most recent from March 5 and 17.

These two recent security updates involved conflict arising from Israel’s announcement of two new national heritage sites, both located in the Palestinian West Bank, in addition to continued building of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem.

“There have been some incidents in the Palestinian neighborhoods near the Jerusalem Center, including a barricading the road to the Old City below the Center,” said the last security update from March 17 on the Jerusalem Center’s website. “The Center is open to visitors and visitors and Center personnel can come and go through the main entry at the top of the building without any problems or undue risks.”

The continued building of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem has seemingly created conflict with the Palestinians and the U.S. government as well, as tensions between Israel and the Obama administration escalated this winter.

The center has yet to meet its full capacity of nearly 160 students, as it lingers at 82, with women students outnumbering men three to one.

“The major change, when and if it occurs, will be the addition of more students,” Brown said. “But that possibility is a long way off, in my view. The economy in North America is still too weak for a substantially larger number of parents to sustain their children’s participation.”

Because the Jerusalem Center was built in 1987, renovations and replacements have occasionally been found necessary.

When reopening, the center faced the challenge of catering meals to the students and faculty. Since its closing, Israel made changes in its food laws, leaving the 1987 kitchen’s code lacking.

In March 2010, after three months of construction, the center welcomed a brand new kitchen to the Oasis cafeteria.

Each new semester of students face challenges, some of which contribute to the unique experience only the Jerusalem study abroad offers.

Though the Humanitarian Services never ceased during the closing of the center, each year brings a new challenge: assembling more hygiene kits. Current service directors Ted Okiishi and Rae Okiishi organize the assembling and distribution of the 10,000 kits made each semester for the poor in Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories.

“I think it is important for the BYU Jerusalem Center and LDS Charities to continue gaining a reputation for being of value to the people of The Holy Land, because of the unique importance of this part of the world,” said Ted Okiishi, Humanitarian Service director and Jerusalem Branch president.

The unique experiences do not end with humanitarian work. Before leaving the U.S., students are required to sign a non-proselytizing agreement regarding Israel and Palestine. A modest and cautious dress code is strictly enforced, largely out of respect to the many conservative cultures in the Middle East.

With just 16 weeks, students literally start and end the semester running to visit every holy site dotting the maps of Jerusalem: the Holy Sepulcher, the Garden Tomb, Gethsemane, Via Dolorosa, Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall.

“Jerusalem is no longer a place; it is something in your heart,” Huntington said. “Students will never read the scriptures the same. You will no longer read scriptures, you will see them.”

Returning students can see the scriptures. They can picture Calvary. They can overlook the entire city of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, envisioned right behind the pulpit every Sabbath.

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