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“It’s not sightseeing so much as insight,” said Rona. “There’s no intent to convert anyone.”
As well as busloads of tourists passing through historic sites, Brigham Young University draws hundreds of Mormon students to its program in Jerusalem. The campus, which provides a diverse roster of courses including Hebrew, Arabic and dual history courses from Palestinian and Orthodox Jewish teachers, is the university’s largest study abroad program, says James Kearl, Assistant to the University President for the Center.
In its 1990s heyday, the center would run five programs a year with a total of around 800 students. Though classes were halted from 2000 to 2006 due to the Second Intifada, interest has resurged. Still, economic belt-tightening has left the center at half its former capacity.
The construction of the campus in the 1980s drew protests from Israeli leaders worried that the center would serve as a missionary base. As such, all students must uphold not just the school’s standard code of conduct, but also a Jerusalem-specific non-proselytizing agreement.
And most of them see no problem with pausing their usual missionary practice. Mormons have long felt a kinship for the Jews, likening themselves to a lost tribe of Israel and seeing the western United States as their own promised land. Rona, for one, feels the two faiths are continuous, saying that he “doesn’t stop being Jewish” just because he has accepted the Mormon teaching of a returned messiah.
This desire for insight and connection in the nexus of intellectual, political, and religious activity makes Israel an incredibly appealing destination for students both in and outside of the university context. But though the ultimate goal for many is to explore the Mormon faith in a personal, tangible way, many have left with an intellectual, as well as spiritual renewal.
“Deepening faith” is what first drew Kerry Muhlestein, now an associate professor of Ancient Scripture at BYU, to Jerusalem as an undergraduate student. He told the Forward that he left “on fire and dedicated. I never would have made it through grad school without it. I even met my wife there.”
Muhlenstein has since lived Israel with his family, working as a teacher at the BYU center to guide students to the physical reality of biblical legends in the land around them. “It’s amazing to look over Gibeon, thinking about Joshua,” he said.
Bryan Bozung, a BYU graduate who helped discover a rare mosaic floor on an excavation in Israel earlier this summer, said that his first trip to Jerusalem was what catalyzed his career. “It was the right choice. It all fell in to place,” he said. A practicing Mormon who is also married to a fellow Jerusalem student and who will go on to study ancient Judaism as a graduate student at Yale this fall, Bozung feels indebted for his success.
“I owe the happiest of my life to Jerusalem,” he said.