Saturday, January 26, 2008

Hogwarts - Jerusalem Style

I suppose I should paint a bit of a picture of the BYU-Jerusalem Center where I live, eat, attend school and church, and where I hang out in general (when I’m not exploring Jerusalem). It is because the building functions in all these capacities that I often feel like I’m living at Hogwarts – only here we study religion instead of sorcery. I mentioned this comparison at dinner a few nights and everyone at my table laughed and agreed with me.

It began the first night we arrived when the buses pulled up to the Center and the lights of Jerusalem shone before us (much like those of Hogsmeade did for Harry and his friends). Granted we had no horseless carriages, but the building before us with its limestone arches was just as magnificent as the medieval castle of Hogwarts.

The Jerusalem Center sits at the top of Mount Scopus, right next to the Mount of Olives and has eight different levels, which means lots of stairs, although luckily ours like to stay put. The bottom five levels house the living quarters, teachers and service couples on the fifth floor and students on the third and fourth floors (the bottom two are currently empty). The first floor houses the main auditorium where we hold our church meetings. However, this is also where the center holds concerts once a week for the community. The seventh floor has the administrative offices and the sixth floor – our favourite – has the classrooms, computer room, student lounges, gym and most important, the Oasis, our student cafeteria.
The Oasis, our Great Hall equivalent, was our first stop that first night in Jerusalem where they fed us generously (and where they continue to feed us generously three times a day). Our food does not appear mysteriously on the tables, but it appears in abundance and variety in the serving area where the cooks always try to give us more than we want. One day after lunch one of the cooks asked me if I liked the food and I told him that I did and I was going to get fat. To this he smiled widely and said, “Good!” Luckily I’ve been walking my feet off around Jerusalem.

After dinner that night we were “sorted” into our two religion classes. This is the group that we travel with on field trips, and if there was such a thing as Quidditch here in Jerusalem our classes would most certainly be rivals. But since there isn’t we get along just fine (which is a good thing considering all three of my roommates are in the other class).

Now that we have been living here at the Center for over two weeks, though it seems like we’ve known each other for a lot longer, we have comfortably settled in. When we are not in class or eating or sleeping, I can most often find people hanging out in the “common room” area doing homework or just relaxing. The common room has a loft, a movie area with comfy beanbag chairs, a few tables for homework and our snack bar, which has been dubbed the Holy City Hot Spot. Luckily the snack bar is only open for one hour each night. Unluckily, they allow us to buy things on tab. I try not to get anything unless I have my shekels with me, because it can be dangerous when I crave chocolate at night and they are willing to hand it over to me for “free.”

It is quite a new experience being with a group of 80 students who practically live together and do almost everything together. We all have the same homework and you can tell when there is a test the next day before everyone is up late in the student lounge/computer rooms, but even that is nice because we are all going through the same thing. At meals, I usually sit down at the first seat available, which means I eat meals with different people, all the time and this has been the best way to get to know everyone. Even more unusual though is the fact that our professors live here as well and so we are able to interact with them beyond the classroom. If I feel this close to everyone already I can only imagine how it will be at the end of four months especially because we are exploring the Holy Land together.

I suppose it wouldn’t really be like Hogwarts if we didn’t feel secure. Instead of spells though, we have a wonderful team of security guards and practical security measures that keep us safe. Whenever we leave the grounds we have to swipe an ID card, which indicates that we have left and when we return we do the same thing to check in. We also carry cell phones with us whenever we leave, which allows the Center to contact us in case of an emergency or for us to contact them if we run into trouble. They are also very strict about rules such as not being allowed in East Jerusalem after dark, which means that you have to be careful in your calculations of how long it takes the sun to set (believe me I know) but this are all good things. So, although we do live in a troubled land, I feel completely safe and secure.

So far, I love my “Hogwarts” experience and I’m excited about our first “Hogsmeade” trip to Egypt, which will start very early tomorrow morning.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


They say when in Rome do as the Romans and so here in Jerusalem we do as the Jews, that is we observe the Sabbath or “Shabbat” as we call it, on Saturdays. It takes a little mental adjusting at first, but otherwise it's the same – one day out of seven reserved for worshipping and rest. Since Shabbat is on Saturdays we do have class on Sunday which seemed a little strange at first, but now that we have done it a few times we are growing accustomed to it.

For our first Shabbat in Jerusalem last week, we went to the Western Wall to welcome in the Sabbath with the Jews. We got there just in time as the sun was beginning to set and the plaza was filled with people, some visitors like us, and others preparing for their Sabbath worship. The wall is separated into two sections for prayer: the right side for the women and the left hand for men. So to honour their customs, our group split up and we were able to go down to the crowded area near the wall. (We had to be sure to turn off cell-phones and put away our cameras because to use these things would be to break the Jewish Sabbath.)

There were quite a mixture of people, many had prayer books and were praying softly towards the wall. Some people had obviously come early to stake out their places next to the wall because they were sitting in white lawn chairs right up close to it. I made my way slowly towards the wall and waited my turn to squeeze in and touch the wall, where I said a little prayer. The stones at the bottom of the wall are the original Herodian Stones from Herods’ Temple Mount (about two thousand years old). Anyway, after that I made my way backwards into the crowd as I saw the other Jewish women do and then joined a group who were singing and dancing – I believe they were part of a Birthright Israel group which brings those of Jewish blood to the Holy Land. It was quite an experience to visit the wall, which has come to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world, attracting Jewish pilgrims from all over and to celebrate their Sabbath with them.

Though the Jews begin their Shabbat on Friday night, we just observe the Sabbath like normal from morning until night. We meet for our church meetings in the upstairs auditorium, which has enormous glass windows overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem – definitely a beautiful backdrop to the meetings. After church we have a few hours of free time before dinner and so for the last two weeks I’ve gone out and visited some of the Christian sites. Last week I visited the Garden Tomb – one of the possible places where Christ was buried and resurrected. They took us on a little tour and pointed out the hill they believe was Calvary, where Christ was crucified. After the tour, we just took some time to sit quietly in the garden, which was surprisingly peaceful considering the city outside was so noisy.

Today after church we visited the Orson Hyde Park, and the Garden of Gethsemane. The latter is of course where Christ prayed and atoned for the sins of the world. (All of these places are within walking distance by the way. We live on Mount Scopus, right next to the Mount of Olives where these two places are.) I’m falling in love with the landscape here and I especially love the olive trees. The ones we saw today in the Garden of Gethsemane were so thick and gnarled I don’t even know how old they are, but they are beautiful. We stood in the little garden that they open to the public and sang a few hymns, then one of the guys was very nice and let us into the other garden across the street, which is larger and more natural looking. We spent some quiet time there reading scriptures and reflecting by ourselves until it was time to leave.

I suppose the conclusion to this post is that the Sabbath should be the same no matter what day it is on. Maybe I have learnt to appreciate it a little more seeing how full of praise the Jewish people were at the Western Wall and then being able to give thanks at the places that are sacred to me.

P.S. We are off to Egypt in one week! More adventures to come soon!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A City of Three Layers

On my first morning in Jerusalem I woke up at five a.m. to the Muslim call to prayer (as I have every other morning since I’ve been here). Although it is certainly an early wake up call, it’s a nice reminder that I am indeed in the Holy Land.

On Thursday after orientation we split up into groups and went on a walking tour of Jerusalem. It’s a very strange thing to walk through a city that has seen so much history. At one of our meetings one professor described Jerusalem as a city of three layers.

One layer is the city’s very rich history, a history that shaped not only the people who lived here, but Jews, Muslims and Christians throughout the entire world. The layers of history were visible as we walked through the city. We saw the walls of the Old City, which have been destroyed and rebuilt and attacked several times. We walked through streets that have still have stones from the Roman roads – streets that literally ran with blood during the Crusades. We passed the Mount of Olives, – in fact we live right next to the Mount of Olives – we passed the Garden Tomb, the Dome of the Rock and Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Of course I plan on returning many times and visiting each of these places.)

Another layer is the present, which was also visible as we walked through a living, breathing city very much alive with people – little Palestinian kids on their way home from school and the many merchants at their stalls. Apparently the merchants are all very happy to have the BYU students back after the seven years during which the Center was closed. Many of them recognized us right away as the Mormons and wanted us to come look at their stores. I think my favourite was Shaaban who came and found us and led us through the meat market and asked us to come look at his store. We told him we couldn’t buy anything that day but he said told us to remember his Ali Baba BYU store and sure enough there above the store it actually said Ali Baba Souvenir Shop and just beneath it, it said BYU Store. Before we could go, he wanted to show us his picture with Steve Young in front of the store, which he proudly displays in the window.

The present city of Jerusalem as in the past is a city of conflict, which was also visible to us. We went to the roof of a hostel reserved for Austrian pilgrims to view the Old City and the view was indescribable. It had been overcast and rainy all morning but when we got up there the sun came out and was glinting off the domes of the various cathedrals that surrounded the hostel. Anyway, we were in an area of Jerusalem that was primarily Palestinian but from the rooftop we saw an Israeli flag flying from one of the houses. Apparently some of the Zionists will buy property in the Muslim quarter – usually for a very large sum of many – and live there in order to establish a Jewish presence in the city. To counter this, the Muslim community has been banding together offering more for the properties so save them from falling into Jewish hands. I just thought that was an interesting example right there in front of our eyes of the ongoing conflict.

The rest of the walk took us to the more modern side of Jerusalem. It is a strange juxtaposition to step out of the Old City to a modern one. Of course there are still reminders that we are not in North America.

The third layer of the city is its future, which has been prophesied about including the Second Coming of Christ.

Of course I have just barely caught a glimpse of the city really, in fact I feel a little bit guilty about sitting here at my computer when I should be taking it all in outside. But I believe one way I will make the most of my experience is by recording it and sharing it.

Friday, January 4, 2008

All my bags are packed ...

It's been almost three years since the last time I left North America, and I am very excited about my journey to the Holy Land -- sometimes I can't breath when I think about it.

My last adventure was as a volunteer English teacher in Voronezh, Russia where I lived for just under five months. It was wonderful to get away from everything familiar and completely immerse myself in another culture. Needless to say, the experience changed my life and I left a part of my heart in the Motherland.

This time I'm off to the Brigham Young University-Jerusalem Center for one semester as a student of Near Eastern Studies. I look forward to once again getting to see another part of the world and get to know the people there. And of course, I can't wait to study the scriptures right there where the Saviour and the ancient prophets walked.

I just recently went through the motions of graduation at BYU-Idaho, although because I am participating in this program I won't receive my degree until May. Perhaps it was the fear of having to grow up and find a real job that convinced me to apply, that and I thrive on this sort of adventure. But honestly, I have known for a while that I had to see Jerusalem before I died, and what better way to do it!

And so, now that my packing troubles are over, (I've decided to live with the fact that my bag is overweight and pay the consequences) I'm off to Utah tomorrow for my Monday orientation meeting. In Israel I will try to update this blog as often as possible for anyone who is interested in reading about my adventures.

Next week in Jerusalem!