The year 2000 was the last time Notre Dame sent a group of students to its study abroad program in Jerusalem. I was a member of this 15-student group directed by Father David Burrell, CSC, a ND professor of theology and philosophy, and Mary Ellen Sheehan, academic coordinator. We called ourselves “J2K” and were disappointed when the program went on hiatus the year after our stay. We understood the reasons for this, and we just relieved that we were able to go.
The Notre Dame Jerusalem Program began in the mid-1980s, was revamped in 1997 and had been running since that time. There have been breaks in the program before, years when students were not allowed to go, and years with “quarantines” of students who were already there when the violence level escalated. Having spent five months in the Holy Land, it’s no wonder to me that those of us who experienced the program continue to feel a great sense of loss in its current absence from the list of ND international studies programs.
Unlike other study-abroad programs where students are immersed in one foreign culture, Jerusalem places students in two cultures amid three religions. The setting for the ND Jerusalem program is the beautiful Tantur Ecumenical Institute. It is a rambling building atop a rocky hill that offers some of the most beautiful vistas in the world. The view from the various flat rooftops tells innumerable and discrete stories. To the south there is the little town of Bethlehem, beyond the Palestinian village of Beit Jala, and to the north, beyond the Jewish area of Gilo, is Jerusalem. The Moab Mountains are off in the distance, and on a clear day their contours are easily visible.
The Notre Dame Jerusalem Program made full use of this amazing setting in the midst of two peoples and places revered as holy by three religions. We J2Kers took one class with Palestinian classmates at Bethlehem University. The walk twice a week lasted 40 minutes each way and took us past Israeli soldiers guarding Rachel’s Tomb and into the West Bank. An International Relations class on the Arab-Israeli Conflict brought us to Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, where, together with our Israeli classmates, we saw the other side of the story we learned at Bethlehem University. We spent our Thursday nights in West Jerusalem at the Ratisbonne Institute, at our religion class team-taught by a Jew, Muslim and Christian (our own Father Burrell). On the grounds of Tantur we learned how to speak colloquial Arabic and a bit of Hebrew.
Our final class, entitled “Archaeology of the Holy Land,” took place everywhere else. The 15 of us, along with Sheehan and Burrell, traveled by tour bus to Galilee, Masada, Qumran and the Dead Sea. We also voyaged to Jordan to visit Mount Nebo, Petra and Amman. We J2Kers tried our hands at riding camels as we journeyed through the Negev Desert and camped out overnight. Toward the end of the program, we visited Mount Sinai, Luxor, Cairo and Karnak in Egypt. These were just a few of the places we traveled, and their names tell little of the amazing experiences associated with each one.
Another part of the program included service placements, ranging from clinics to nursing homes. I volunteered with Jemar Tisby, a fellow J2Ker, at a Palestinian school in Beit Sahour. We assisted in their English classes, giving the 8th and 11th grade students a chance to hear English with an American accent. We tried to speak slowly and repeat things often; when necessary, we resorted to songs. I recall one day that Jemar suggested “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” At the time, it didn’t seem that strange, but in retrospect the memory of 13-year old Palestinians singing the old American favorite is endearing, to say the least.
Although the opportunities presented by the Holy Land were new and exciting, living in Jerusalem was emotionally draining and often produced feelings of frustration, anger and sadness. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the enormous conflict that has engulfed the region for centuries. But I think that many of us were not aware of the toll the conflict would take on us during our time there. After all, we were neither Palestinian nor Israeli.
Yet it did not take us long to realize that as Americans, and as Christians, we were deeply tied to the conflict. We were guardedly liked and respected by both our Palestinian and Israeli classmates, who were equally accepting of us inside and outside of the classroom.
At Bethlehem University there was a hand-drawn poster of a Palestinian pushing Uncle Sam off a cliff. It greeted us one morning, and for days afterward, as we walked downstairs from our History of Modern Palestine class. Though that political statement might have been mildly intimidating, the kindness and hospitality of the Palestinians we encountered helped us to see that it was our government they resented, not the average U.S. citizen.
Then there was the memorable day, Israeli Independence Day, when Jemar and I got stuck going back to Tantur after our service placement. In front of Rachel’s Tomb we witnessed an example of the riots so characteristic to the conflict. Safe, but unable to pass by, we climbed up some building steps to watch Palestinians throw stones at the Israeli soldiers who would occasionally open fire, shooting rubber bullets at the crowd. We watched curiously as a group of children near us played with the rubber bullets they had collected. These cylindrical bullets make fairly good building blocks, and the boys had collected enough bullets to make small buildings from them. I felt privileged when one of the boys let me keep a bullet. Another small Palestinian, following suit with his generosity, handed me a small plastic bear, about the same size of the bullet. The bullet and bear now keep each other company in my olivewood Bethlehem box, and the smiling faces of the boys stay vivid in my mind.
I mention these events not to depict anyone negatively but to show the emotional stress on those living there. Perhaps the most difficult aspect, and greatest blessing, for us was that we were insiders who could switch between the two groups. It provided us with both sides of the story, including a clear view of the ignorance both groups had in regard to the other. Most of the Israelis would never set foot in the West Bank; the Palestinians were not allowed into Israel. They rarely, if ever, spoke to each other. Without knowing or witnessing each others’ lives, could they ever have compassion and work together to bring about peace?
Overall, the Holy Land has an angry atmosphere. Leaving it, in that sense, was a relief. And yet at the same time, nearly five years later, I continue to feel a pull to go back. _Inshallah _ (God willing), I will spend six weeks at Tantur next summer. I want Jerusalem to seem like a real place again. I don’t follow the news from the Middle East anymore because I do not want to be desensitized to the struggle in that area, nor do I want to agonize about the people I knew there. I hope that if I am able to return, the visit will renew my awareness that the conflict involves real people, human beings who want to live in their homes in safety.
I know not to expect to get any answers. I am still not really sure why I chose to go to Jerusalem in 2000, so I don’t think I’ll find the answer for why I feel a pull to the chaotic city of Jerusalem in 2005. This time I realize that any answers I find will only lead to more questions. But I am okay with more questions. Questions are a good place to start, especially next year in Jerusalem.
Maria Feilmeyer is a master’s student of theology at the University of Dayton. She and her fiancé, Jeff Morrow, hope to join a summer Scholar’s Program in Jerusalem in 2005.