Saturday, January 7, 2012

My First Shabbat

Yesterday I experienced my first Shabbat--or Sabbath Day--in the Holy Land.

A national park next to the Jerusalem Center

Shabbat begins on Friday night. As the sun is setting, merchants are closing shop and the city quickly becomes desolate. The Sabbath is a day of rest, or, better translated from Hebrew, a "cessation from work," and this holy day is taken very seriously. In fact, it's quite inspiring to see the way these devout men and women honor God through their worship on the Sabbath.

BYU

A view from the Orson Hyde Memorial Garden
I once heard that our great grandfathers called this special day of worship the Holy Sabbath, our grandfathers called it the Sabbath, our fathers called it Sunday, and we call it the weekend. The idea behind the Sabbath as a day meant to honor God has largely been lost--at least where I'm from. What a moving experience it is to see such religious fervency here among the various religions sharing the Holy City. I've been greatly impressed by their examples.

Yesterday was a memorable day for several reasons:

  1. I got to pick up a woman named Svetlana and bring her to church. She is a Moldovan member of the Church with whom I enjoyed speaking Russian :)
  2. Taking the Sacrament overlooking Jerusalem was a truly sacred experience.
  3. I taught primary for the first time and loved it! Primary is the place to be.
  4. After Church, a group of us went to the Orson Hyde Memorial Gardens. Read more!
  5. The views were amazing.
  6. We went to Gethsemane. By far the most meaningful experience I've had since arriving in Israel. Click here to read about my experience in the Garden!
  7. We saw the supposed tomb of the Virgin Mary.
  8. Mary's Tomb
  9. We took random pictures and had a great time :)

From left to right: Sterling, Mark, Kyle, Jen, Makara
"Mormon University" hosts eight tours a day, with over 60,000 visitors a year. However, the center shuts down on Sundays except to members of the LDS Church because of its non-proselyting agreement with the Israeli Government.

Love,

Mark

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Center

Right now it is 4:50 AM in Jerusalem and I am sitting in BYU's Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies overlooking the Old City. Even as I type I can hear the Muslim prayers that consume the city's airwaves every few hours echoing through the city from megaphones strategically placed in high towers.

A picture I took of the Jerusalem Center while
walking into the Old City today.
Insomnia has allowed me time to explore the center, and it is quite the sight to see. Located on a hill overlooking all of Jerusalem (Mount Scopus to the Israelis, or, the Mount of Olives to the Palestinians--yes, the Mount of Olives just a stones throw from the Garden of Gethsemane), the center is unparalleled in architectural design of the surrounding area. Every level of the center is designed to have a stunning view of the Old City, the most prominent landmark being the Dome of the Rock looming not to far in the distance.

The main auditorium on the 8th level of the center exhibits a panoramic view of the old city, making it difficult to focus on whoever is speaking. Along with the view is an organ, which has been used during the weekly concerts that are open to Jerusalem's public. In fact, this week the organist for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Brother Richard Elliot, will be performing a special concert commemorating 25 years since the organ was built.

This is what I pictured Jerusalem to look like.

The Center has become our home. Each day, all 83 students get up together, eat breakfast together, go to classes together, go on field trips together, and then hang out with one anther in the evening. It's strange to live so close with everyone, but we are becoming friends so quickly! I found it only slightly odd that this morning I was lifting weights with one of my professors just an hour or so before class. Odd, yet kind of fun at the same time. Part of the Jerusalem Center experience is to create lasting friendships, and I feel like I've already started down that path.

Love,

Mark

The gang last night. I am sitting in the front left.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Out of America and Into the Holy Land

On Wednesday, January 4, 2012 I arrived at the Tel Aviv airport in Israel.

Flying over Israeli landscape was fascinating. I immediately understood that I had never seen any part of the world like this. The rocky hills interspersed with seemingly random clusters of small, beige sandstone villages caught my eye.

After disembarking, we made our way to customs. I was shocked to hear so many people speaking Russian. Waiting in line at the border, I was even more surprised to find that instructions were in three languages—English, Arabic, and Russian. It seems that I will have many opportunities to speak Russian here. 

I had my first cultural experience with an Israeli woman. She was the guard checking my passport at customs. I made my usual approach, smiled, and gave her my passport. I asked her a few questions about her day and her work there, and I was interested to find that she, despite her authority, would not look me in the eyes. It was so strange to me. I'm used to being stared down by border guards as they check my passport, but she wouldn't look me straight in the eye. I entered Israel knowing that this was going to be a very different experience from anything I have previously experienced.

Hillside of Olive Trees
We got our bags, met our professors, jumped on a bus, and headed for the Jerusalem center. The 40 minute drive was amazing. The landscape here is incredible. It's such a beautiful country! Since it is still cooler weather, green grass dominates the rocky hillsides, and there is much to see. As we drove, I couldn't help but notice all of the olive trees lining the hillsides. Incredible. To think of the history of this place...

After a few minutes, we reached the West Bank, notorious in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today. We got to drive through part of the West Bank, a place forbidden to enter by the Church with the exception of certain field trips specific only to the Jerusalem Center. It was quite different from the first part of the drive. Barbed wire, high walls, towers, and soldiers with large machine guns lined the sides of the streets. I look forward to learning more of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but my first lesson was the "Wall of Separation," dividing certain communities in the West Bank from the rest of Israel.

The Separation Wall
As we crossed into the Israeli controlled roads once again, we soon came over a hill with a stunning view of Jerusalem, and right there on top stands the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. We have arrived.

Love,

Mark

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

JFK

What an adventure of meeting so many new people and interesting conversation! We've made it to New York City and are about to board our flight to Tel Aviv.

Anticipation increases as reality sinks in...I'm really spending my next four months in Jerusalem with a group of 80 people I don't know. I couldn't be more excited!

Love,

Mark

Quote of the day: "Don't get caught"
-Lauren Evans

Monday, January 2, 2012

Orientation

Wow.

Orientation turned out to be much more intense than anticipated. In fact, it wasn't at all what I had expected.

Professor Jim Kearl conducted the orientation meeting. You may recognize the name. He is the infamous Econ 110 professor at BYU. You can check out his ratings here.

I'm stoked. The BYU Jerusalem Center has been on my mind since my first days at BYU. Now I finally get the chance to experience the Holy Land! I imagine reading the Bible will never be the same. Not to mention all of the cultural experiences and politics I will be immersed in.

Mom, it's been fun to be with you over Christmas break. Thanks for everything you've done to make my stay in California and here in Provo great! I'll miss our early morning chats, but hopefully through this blog you'll get to share in a at least a few of my adventures in the coming months! I love you!

Love,

Mark