"From the verandas, classrooms and gardens of Brigham Young University's Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies on Mount Scopus you can enjoy a spectacular view at the glory that is Jerusalem.
"Constructed mostly of imported teakwood, Jerusalem stone, Italian marble and lots and lots of glass, the [eight-tieredT building housing the center would be worth a trip [up Mount ScopusT even without the sensational panorama it offers students, faculty and visitors. The landscaping alone is fantastic: in front of the wood and glass entrance with its two brass fountains there are rolling lawns, generic Israeli flowers and trees and signs telling you clearly what foilage you encounter. In a second garden there are biblical herbs and flowers (rosemary, wild lemon, thyme, dwarf ivy, water lilies and more) as well as olive trees and vineyards."This description of BYU's Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies is not from a travel brochure or from the university's own promotional literature. It is from a full-page article in the Jerusalem Post, the largest English-language newspaper in the Holy Land.
Although some 4,000 visitors come to BYU's Jerusalem center every month, it is more than just a tourist attraction.
The center is an extension of BYU's Provo campus. Its purpose is to give students participating in the university's semester abroad program an intensive experience of studying in the Holy Land. At present, 169 students – the center's capacity – are enrolled.
The center, from the time it was first proposed until the present, has been under the direction of the First Presidency. President Howard W. Hunter and Elder James E. Faust of the Council of the Twelve have the responsibility of overseeing the center.
Jim Kearl, assistant to BYU Pres. Rex E. Lee for the Jerusalem Center, said the central purpose of the facility is "to transform young people's lives by allowing them to study the scriptures in their context, in their geographical and historical setting."
The center has an important secondary purpose, Brother Kearl noted. It helps students understand and appreciate the cultures of the Middle East as they learn about the Palestinian and the Jewish/Israeli cultures.
"Testimonies are built and strengthened as students come to understand the Savior better by seeing the scriptures in their setting, and students develop a deep appreciation for two wonderful cultures," Brother Kearl said.
"We spend half the curriculum on the Old and the New Testaments, tied to events in the Holy Land. The other half of the curriculum includes study of the history and culture of Islam, Palestine, and post-biblical Judaism, including the establishment of the state of modern Israel. The center makes no claims to offer a full university curriculum."
Brother Kearl noted, "We have a long waiting list. We take applications more than a year ahead of time. Spaces fill up quickly."
The BYU center has been likened to "a city on a hill that cannot be hid." It is built in eight tiers, reminding one of stadium steps going up Mount Scopus. Each level commands a view of Jerusalem across the Kidron Valley.
Students live on the bottom five floors, usually four per room. Also, there is housing for some couples who serve at the center, and some faculty members. Most faculty members and administrators live away from the center.
The sixth floor features a cafeteria, classrooms and a computer/writing lab. On the seventh floor are the administrative area, faculty offices, and an auditorirum/theater. The center's main entrance is located on the eighth floor, which has a library, seminar rooms, a theater, and additional faculty offices. The main attraction is a 320-seat auditorium enclosed by glass on three sides. It was in this auditorium that the Tabernacle Choir recorded its Jan. 3 broadcast from the Holy Land while on a concert tour from Dec. 26-Jan. 6.
The auditorium, which has a 3,000-pipe organ, serves also as a concert hall that attracts top musicians from throughout the Holy Land to concerts each Sunday evening. Former Tabernacle organist Robert Cundick and his wife, Charlotte Cundick, who are directors of hosting at the center, have built upon a tradition established by their predecessors, Earl and Marcene Jardine, of inviting musicians to perform at the center. The series features about 50 concerts a year.
Truman G. Madsen, on-site director of the Jerusalem center, said BYU has had a study abroad program in the Holy Land for more than 20 years. "This is just one of several study abroad programs sponsored by BYU," he commented. Brother Madsen said that before the center opened in 1987, students stayed in kibbutzim and hotels. "David Galbraith was the driving force behind the study abroad program in Jerusalem," Brother Madsen related. "He was here from the very beginning of the program, and was involved in semesters abroad and lived in this country from 1969 [until 1988T. He was the center's first director, and was in charge during the critical years when the building was under construction."
Brother Galbraith was succeeded in 1988 as the center's director by Martin B. Hickman, who, in turn was succeeded by George Horton. Brother Madsen, who came to the center two years ago to replace Brother Horton, will be succeeded in mid-June by Kent S. Brown, BYU professor of ancient scripture.
Brother Madsen said the center's faculty is drawn from four different sources: teachers from BYU, BYU-Hawaii and Ricks College; representatives of the Church Educational System, including institute teachers; local professors from nearby universities and institutions; and guest lecturers from the community who are experts in a variety of contemporary topics pertaining to the Near East. Brother Madsen came to the center several years ago as a visiting lecturer.
Rabbi David Rosen, the former chief rabbi of Ireland and South Africa, and Israel's representative at the Vatican, is one of the local teachers, giving classes in Jewish history, culture and Hebrew. Another local professor is Dr. Nafez Nazzal. A Palestinian, he specializes in political science and Islamic history. His wife, Laila Nafez, teaches Arabic and sociology part-time at the center.
"Our curriculum is biblical at its core, with studies of the Old Testament and the New Testament, placing primary focus on the Gospels," Brother Madsen said. "We correlate teaching in the classroom with weekly field trips that take the students out to study the settings and narratives of what they're learning in the classroom."
Michael Bawden, the center's academic coordinator, said annual field trips include excursions to Jordan, Egypt, and the Sinai. "We also move the entire student body to the Galilee area for 8-16 days where we study the life of Christ," he said. "While we're in Galilee, BYU travel study groups come and fill the space here at the center."
The BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies was years in the planning. Robert C. Taylor was director of BYU's Department of Travel Study when the first group of students went to the Holy Land in 1968 with Daniel H. Ludlow. Twenty students were in that group.
"We had our doubts that we could get a study abroad program off the ground in the Holy Land, but we did, and we began to dream of constructing a building early on," Brother Taylor related. He made several trips to Israel with President N. Eldon Tanner, then a counselor in the First Presidency. In 1979, several General Authorities, including President Spencer W. Kimball, went to Jerusalem for the dedication of the Orson Hyde Memorial Garden, located on the Mount of Olives. "President Tanner wanted to go look at some possible sites for the BYU center so we went on a little excursion by ourselves. I pointed out some of the sites," Brother Taylor said. "He didn't like any of them. I tried to explain how hard it was to acquire land in Jerusalem.
"Then, President Tanner saw a site he liked. President Kimball and others came to the site, and it was put to a vote. The Brethren raised their right hands, indicating that was where the center should be built."
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Seventy and a former president of BYU was in the Holy Land when the Tabernacle Choir visited. In an address to guests traveling with the choir, Elder Holland said that President Tanner "might just as well have said,
Get Buckingham Palace for the Hyde Park Chapel in London.' There is simply not a way to convey how utterly inaccessible this property was. It was land expropriated from the Arabs during the Six-Day War [in 1967T; land that the Arabs still believed was theirs in the West Bank. Equally adamant was a Jewish community that responded to Palestinian claims over this property,Never!' So a Green Belt was established to protect the land so no one could ever build here. That was a way to calm the emotion; a way to still the tempest. It was agreed, `Nobody will ever build here.' "
However, Elder Holland said, miracles happened. Permission was granted for BYU to build its center for Near Eastern studies on Mount Scopus. Construction began in 1984. Protests by ultraorthodox Jews were mounted to halt construction, but the Israeli government ruled in 1986 that BYU had complied with all laws and was within its legal rights to build the center.
The first students moved into the center in 1987. In 1988, a renewable 49-year lease was signed by President Hunter, then acting president of the Council of the Twelve and a member of BYU's board of trustees, and Elder Holland, then president of BYU. Elder Faust, also representing BYU's board of trustees, attended the ceremony. A provision of the lease prohibits BYU students, faculty and staff associated with the Jerusalem center from proselyting for the Church. President Hunter dedicated the center on May 16, 1989. Among those attending and addressing the dedicatory ceremony in the center's auditorium were President Thomas S. Monson, second counselor in the First Presidency; Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Council of the Twelve; and Elder Holland.
Dann Hone, an administrator with BYU's Jerusalem center and whose office is on the Provo campus, has worked with the university's travel study program since 1974. All students who attend the BYU Jerusalem center apply through BYU, although they don't have to be registered at BYU. Students from other colleges and universities are accepted.
"The center has been a great blessing in building students' testimonies and knowledge of the scriptures, and learning of the life and ministry of the Savior," Brother Hone said. "I interview all students before they go to the Jerusalem center. For the winter semester, 197 students were interviewed; 169 went. Thirteen had served missions; many had plans to serve. A majority of the students who go to the Jerusalem center later marry in the temple. The center has a great impact in helping them set their goals and determine their purposes in life. They come from all majors, everything from dance to computer science to engineering, but while they're in the Holy Land, they focus on studying the scriptures and the great things that have taken place in that great land."