Monday, 13 July 2009

Brigham Young U. Marks More Than 2 Decades in Israel

July 13, 2009

As Brigham Young University, the first American institution to build a campus in Jerusalem, marks more than two decades in Israel, it is about to be joined by two other American-run institutions in the city. Steven Williams and Kimberly Matheson (above) study at BYU's Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, which overlooks the Mount of Olives. (Photograph by David Blumenfeld)



Kimberly Matheson sits before an arched window that frames a breathtaking view of the Old City of Jerusalem. The sunlight reflects off the golden Dome of the Rock behind her and the sound of birdsong in the tiered gardens outside mingles with the muezzin's call to prayer from the minarets of the nearby mosques.

It seems redundant to ask the Near Eastern-studies major why she signed up for Brigham Young University's study-abroad program in Jerusalem. Until this year, its Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies was the only campus in the Holy Land run by an American university.

"You can read books as much you like, but man, until you have spent a week in Egypt and you are sick of sand and those flies are everywhere and you can't keep anything in your stomach and that heat — it's so much more real," says Ms. Matheson, one 240 Brigham Young students who have spent $10,000 each to enroll in the university's Jerusalem center.

"It's worth it," she adds. "Unequivocally, absolutely. Everyone says this will change your life. I did not anticipate the far-reaching effects of it."

Like many American universities, Brigham Young has been running a study-abroad program in Israel for decades. But it was the first university to build a campus here, in 1984, on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem.

Having a campus in Israel has changed both the intensity of the students' experience and the face of the city. It has also illustrated the difficulty of running a study-abroad program in a politically unstable country. Brigham Young shut down its Jerusalem center for six years following the outbreak of the 2000 Palestinian intifada, and it is now struggling to rebuild its enrollments. Such challenges are increasingly common as American universities expand their international offerings into new and less familiar regions of the world.

This fall Brigham Young will be joined in Jerusalem by two other American colleges. Bard College will inaugurate a program for its students in a dedicated facility on the campus of Al-Quds University on the outskirts of the city. And Southeastern University will open its new George Wood Jerusalem Studies Center downtown.

Overcoming Suspicions

To build its campus, Brigham Young, a Mormon institution, leased land on the Mount of Olives, which was captured by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War. Palestinians initially objected to the Israeli authorities' decision to lease occupied territory, and Israelis were suspicious of the Mormon practice of proselytizing.

But university officials say they won over the local community by employing a mix of Palestinians and Israelis on the staff, sending student volunteers into local social and medical programs, and making the campus accessible to residents, who attend regular concerts and other events here.

The campus, designed jointly by an Israeli and an American architect, cascades down the ancient mountainside on eight levels. The centerpiece is a stone, teak, and oak-trimmed auditorium with huge windows framing a view of the golden Dome of the Rock, the black-domed roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the white cupola of the newly reconstructed Hurva Synagogue — three important and symbolic institutions representing Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

On Sundays, Jerusalemites are treated to free concerts in the auditorium featuring top local classical and jazz musicians and a 3,000-pipe Marcussen organ, considered the finest in the Middle East.

Students study the Bible, the ancient and modern Middle East, and either Hebrew or Arabic.

Unusually for Jerusalem, the faculty, administrative, security, and support staffs are integrated — American, Israeli, and Palestinian. The director is an Israeli; his assistant, Tawfic Alawi, is a Palestinian.

Mr. Alawi lives next to the center and started work there as a security guard 17 years ago. He is now assistant director.

"At first, people wondered what this big building was. We did not know who these Mormons were. They turned out to be good neighbors and good friends to the local community," Mr. Alawi says. "They employ local people and bring business to the neighborhood. Now it is part of our society. When the center reopened two and half years ago it was seen as a sign of better times after some difficult years."

An Immersion Experience

S. Kent Brown, associate director of the center and a retired professor of ancient scripture, says students gain an enormous amount by spending an entire semester in Israel.

"The payoff comes in on-site experience," he says. "We conduct a series of field trips that run in tandem with classroom instruction, so that when we're talking about the era of Moses and Joshua, we take students to Jericho. When we're talking about the era of the monarchy, we visit the places that were inhabited alternately by Israelites and Philistines. It's pretty heady stuff to read the story of David and Goliath and then step into the spring bed in the Valley of Elah and pick up a stone."

But the university doesn't shy away from current events. Speakers at the center's weekly forum for students on current affairs have included the former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, the former Palestinian cabinet ministers Yasser Abed Rabbo and Hanan Ashrawi, and other senior officials from both sides of the conflict.

Students are encouraged to explore the city and participate in a range of humanitarian and cultural activities, from helping out at orphanages or a nearby maternity hospital to Sunday-morning bell ringing at the YMCA.

Andrew Skinner, a former dean of religious education at the Provo campus, who is on his fourth tour in Jerusalem, says the effect carries across the curriculum.

"It's pedagogically different," says Mr. Skinner. "Is there a difference between reading about an experiment and performing one — or actually living in the laboratory observing the experiment for oneself? This is one of the greatest human laboratories you can possibly find, so how can you not be pedagogically, fundamentally changed by the experience?"

Instability and Safety

But the intensity of Jerusalem also has its downside. The university closed the center in November 2000 after the Palestinian intifada erupted that September. Brigham Young had intended to open the center again in 2006, but then the war in Lebanon postponed the reopening until January 2007.

Now students are issued local cellphones for security updates, and the center's Web site carries breaking news on security alerts in the country. If trouble breaks out in the city, the center sends text messages to the students to tell them to stay away from certain areas and return to the campus.

The campus itself is protected by its own mixed Israeli-Palestinian security detail, and it has never been a target of violence. (Other American colleges with programs in Israel rely on their host universities for security.)

Students say they understand the security concerns.

"We're required to go out in groups," says Steven Williams, a 22-year-old second-year music major from Colorado.

The center appears to have been successful in deterring would-be attackers by consciously building ties with the local community. University staff members are acutely aware that the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the next building along the ridge, was the target of a Hamas bomber who killed nine staff members and students there in July 2002.

"Both communities know we hire people from both sides. In a way that's as good a security blanket as anything else," says Mr. Brown. "Our security staff is very dedicated, and they guard the campus 24 hours a day — but it's soft security. Nobody carries a weapon. It's only on rare occasions that parents have expressed concern when a child has wanted to come. We have simply said they should look at our record."

Even though the violence never entered the campus, it took a toll. Before the intifada, there were 170 students in each session. Now there are only 80. The university is hoping the numbers will return to their previous level.

But the security concerns that closed the center for six years have been replaced by economic ones.

"We want to increase the number of students to the previous level, but the question is how soon we can do it," says Mr. Brown. "If somehow the economy were to become a little bit cheerier, then the numbers of applicants would likely rise."

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