Category Archives: Middle East 2019

Blessed are the butterflies who rise above human borders

14 April 2019

Fresh off our settlement experience, we spent last week in Haifa, a port city on the slopes between Mount Carmel and the Mediterranean. Our days, organized by Oranim College, were filled with lectures, documentaries, and museum visits. That included a preview of this past Tuesday’s election, in which Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party effectively remained in power. After his pre-election promise to start annexing the West Bank, the future looks even bleaker for our friends back in Beit Sahour.

We also had many a mifgash, or “encounter,” with Israelis. Two of my favorites were a talk with Benji, a 20-year-old combat soldier, and a day spent with best friends Yael, a Jewish Israeli, and Rawan, an Arab Israeli. They took us to each of their homes and talked about the ways their lives are similar and different.

During our free time, we had to balance exploration of the city—the Baha’i Shrine and Gardens were beautiful—with academic work: unfortunately, we don’t just get to travel and have fun all the time. Most evenings in Haifa found several students in the lounge, sharing portable keyboards and typing out research papers based on interviews we’ve been conducting throughout the semester. Toward the end of the week, we all sat in a circle to read our thesis statements out loud, and it was cool to hear the 26 different topics we’ve been digging into.

Another assignment was to split up into groups and each present the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an interesting way. On Saturday night, we gathered to enjoy each other’s performances, which ranged from finger painting, to two people talking while divided by a curtain, to breaking the world record for the most consecutive readings of the Balfour Declaration. They were all excellent, but the most meaningful for me was a group that depicted an Arab mother and a Jewish father reading two different bedtime stories to their children simultaneously. Sometimes the books said the same things, but many of the pages had slight differences that described the divisions between the two groups and the way they view this land.

This week, we moved on to Nazareth, Jesus’s hometown and our last major stop in Israel. For two days, our group split in half to learn about Roman occupation and resistance (I got “stabbed” by a zealous Linford) and to volunteer at Nazareth Village. The Village is a re-creation of a first-century town like the one Jesus lived in, and it gives us a more realistic view of the place where he spent about 25 years of his life. Some students dressed up in first-century clothing and picked weeds like peasants as tour groups passed, while others stayed in shorts and t-shirts to haul rocks, clean stables, and work in the gift shop.

For the rest of the week, we embarked on our last big physical challenge of the semester, a 65-km trek on the Jesus Trail. The trail was started ten years ago by Maoz Inon, an Israeli, and Dave Landis, an EMU grad, to allow people to walk in the places Jesus walked and connect some of the important sites from his travels. When we started out from Nazareth, Linford read us the Bible passage where Jesus tells us not to worry by saying, “behold the birds of the air” and “behold the lilies of the field.” As we walked, Linford encouraged us to observe the things around us and pick out something new to behold. Here’s what we came up with:

Behold the trail we walk: sometimes straight and easy, sometimes crooked and demanding, but always a fun adventure. –Graham

Behold the snails which cling to the flowers. Though easily overlooked, God notices all.  –Rachael

Behold the cows of the pasture, for they peacefully accept strangers and are slow to anger. –Jessie

Behold the barbed wire fence, almost invisible amongst the lovely flowers that now surround it on both sides. –Silas

Behold the roof that provides shelter and comfort from a world that can be harsh.  –Nealon

Behold the trees and flowers rooted to withstand the wind and rain. –Natalie

Behold the highway, a deadly risk, yet wonder and promise drives us on. –Elliott

Behold the confusion. For it seems as though we go the wrong way, yet we are led down right paths to shade and nourishment. –Luke

Behold the beholder in the eye of beauty.  –Isaac Andreas

Behold the trail blazes that take the place of our physical Jesus in directing our path.
– Lauren

That afternoon, we made it to Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine and where we beheld a delicious dinner. The next day, we set out through rolling countryside and fields of beautiful flowers. Between chatting, playing music, and doing funny impressions of people we’ve met, we meditated on Jesus’s parables, where he compares the Kingdom of Heaven to ordinary things:

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a well-paved, level path. Weary travelers do not stumble because of it. –Marianna

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a plowed yet unsown field; something will eventually grow but it can be anything you want it to be. –Tor

The Kingdom of God is like the orange tree. Though we cannot reach the upper branches right now, we can still enjoy the fruits it produces and sweet aroma that surrounds us.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a city viewed from a distance: you can’t see a path that leads there, but you know that there is one.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like the sun, always there but not always appreciated.  –Audrey

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a field of wheat sown with careful intentionality, full of uniformity, yet defined by individuality.   –Isaac Alderfer

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a foreign language. It’s hard to appreciate when we don’t understand it. But once we begin to understand, we can see and hear it everywhere.

We were rewarded at the end of the day with a dinner fit for a king and heavenly fudge brownies in Ilaniya. On Thursday, we had to leave early for our longest day, which took us through mud and over the Horns of Hattin. Linford read us some of Jesus’s statements like “blessed are the peacemakers” and “woe to you who are rich,” and we thought about the kinds of actions that we want to encourage or discourage in today’s world:

Blessed are those who seek beauty, for they will always find it. -Karissa

Blessed are those who stand in treacherous waters to help others safely cross. –Skylar

Blessed are those who actively listen to people who are very different from them. –Collin

Blessed are those who change their mind, for they will be given wisdom. –Allison

Blessed are those who listen joyfully and graciously.  –Carly

Blessed are those who offer a helping hand over giant mud puddles and wet are those who don’t accept it. –Anisa

Blessed are those who appreciate the person right in front of them. –Mary

Blessed are the weary, for they shall find rest. Woe to those who rest too long, for that shall bring unrest. –Daniil

Blessed are the butterflies who rise above the borders humanity has made. –Erin

In Arbel that evening, we were blessed by hot showers and a cool pool to splash around in. For the final day of hiking, we went over the cliffs of Arbel, through herds of cows, and down to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. On a hill where Jesus may have given his Sermon on the Mount, we tried to put ourselves in the places of the tired, downtrodden, ordinary people who came there 2,000 years ago. We imagined what they might have thought about Jesus, who was preaching a radical message that threatened to disrupt their relatively peaceful lives under Roman occupation, but who also offered a view of a new kind of kingdom in which they could truly be free.

–Ben Stutzman


Middle East 2019 group at Giza

Middle East: West Jerusalem, Efrat, observing Shabbat

2 April 2019

I quickly grew fond of the Abraham Hostel after arriving on Sunday afternoon. This place has created a memorable atmosphere for itself. In most of the rooms, each wall is a strikingly different color than those adjacent, and everywhere you look there are fat, slightly cryptic stenciled messages like ABRAHAM – THE FIRST BACKPACKER and DON’T WORRY – WE’VE GOT YOUR TOWEL and IF YOU MUST RUN – RUN. Among other delights, this West Jerusalem hostel features a spacious lounge/dining hall where the majority of guests and visitors enjoy each others’ company. During our first evening here, our group ordered pizza – evidently the best in Israel – and enjoyed listening to some talented music from hostel staff and Jam Night volunteers.

Monday and Wednesday looked a little bit different for each student in our crew, because  they were both very free in form. We were given only a checklist of six sites to visit around Jerusalem on our own: The Temple Mount, the Burnt House in the Herodian Quarter, the Tower of David Museum, the Mea Shearim, the Bible Lands Museum, and the Israel Museum. The Temple Mount is easily the most famous as well as the most sacred of these, which explains why the line to the top seemed half a mile long. This was well worth it to see the large and lovely Dome of the Rock up close, as well as the El Aqsa mosque that it often outshines. As much as visiting this and the other locations paid off, I think I enjoyed the Israel Museum the most. It features some fascinating exhibits on history and culture specific to the Jewish people, the most complete collection of Palestinian artifacts in Jerusalem, the Shrine of the Book that holds the fabled Dead Sea Scrolls, and some truly mesmerizing artwork from various movements in time. If you ever find yourself pacing these halls, I highly recommend taking your time in the “Eye to Eye” section, which uses modern art that is provocative and often creatively interactive to discuss conflict, communication, and their relationship.

On that note, in the midst of exploring these locations at our own individual paces, our group gathered on Tuesday morning to meet Yuval and Husam, Israeli and Palestinian partners in peace. They introduced themselves with stories of boys who were taught to fear any contact with the other side but grew into men with the understanding that this very contact is vital to building anything positive together. They led us around West Jerusalem, pointing out sites of suicide bombings and uprooted burials, sharing insights on the dialogue that is needed to address past and present injustices. “Both sides obviously have pain,” I remember Yuval saying. “We won’t get anywhere until we are all willing to talk about the other side’s pain even more than our own.”

On Thursday, we bid our lovely hostel farewell and loaded a bus headed for Efrat, an Israeli settlement town not far southwest of Beit Sahour. On the way, we visited Hadassah Medical Center, one of Israel’s largest and most impressive hospital complexes. We then stopped at the Pat BaMelach Artisan Bakery for lunch and a bread baking workshop. (Yes, we got to eat our projects, and I’ve certainly had worse.) Finally, we arrived at Efrat and met our host families, which are composed of some fascinating people from across the globe.

Over the next day, we listened to all sorts of speakers on topics including fears of terrorism, response to tragedy, the lifestyle of seminary students, the controversial founding of this settlement area and coexistence surrounding it, and the expectations of Shabbat. Hearing these voices presented some areas of the ideological spectrum that our group had not yet been exposed to in person. Whether we always reached an agreement or not, it was a valuable experience for us and a vulnerable one for those sharing their views. Another quote that stuck with me from one of these discussions is, “Try not to see it as someone trying to convince you of something. Look at it as someone’s story that has made them who they are today.”

Then we reached Shabbat itself, initiated at sunset on Friday with the lighting of our family candles. My first Shabbat synagogue service was much more lively than I expected, and even though the entire event was in Hebrew, that was no excuse not to participate in a circle dance and attempt to mimic the mouth noises of those around me. My highlight of Efrat was probably Shabbat supper that night and lunch on Saturday. Not only was the food heavenly, the conversation was long and meaningful. Graham and I learned as much as we could about our host family’s background story as well as their Jewish lifestyle. Both are full of intricacies. Outside of meals, we did great amount of reading and napping, something highly encouraged by the Jewish sabbath. There are a lot of rules to follow on this holy day, such as no flipping light switches, no writing, no tearing paper, no driving, and plenty more, but its purpose is to help one disconnect from typical routine hustle and take a break from any exertion, physical or creative. Some might call it glorified laziness, but I’d like to recommend the phrase “gratitude for just being present.” I was sad to see this special time end.

We concluded our time in Efrat with an engaging film and discussion about border checkpoints and factors involved, followed in the morning by a visit to The Magic Place, an adorable and empowering kindergarten program with its focus on music, art, and environment. My last memory of this settlement will be a colorful room full of toddlers performing interpretive dances to Flight of the Bumblebee, and I cannot complain.

-Silas Clymer

Middle East 2019 group at Giza

Middle East: Beit Sahour

24 February 2019
The twenty days that we have been scheduled to stay in Beit Sahour are concluded – we depart this afternoon. This is the longest amount of time that we’ve been headquartered in one spot, and some would say it’s been just long enough to start really digging in and adapting to the lifestyle here before being uprooted. That’s the nature of this semester’s journey. We hop from place to place in bursts, taking in the environment, natural and human, and the stories, old and new. Sometimes we linger enough to reflect, and sometimes we must process on the go as we shift into what can seem like one entirely different cross-cultural after the other. Each time, a piece is added to either clarify or complicate (usually both) our understanding of the puzzle that is the Middle East, with all of its beauty and struggle.
This final week in Palestine has had many puzzle pieces to contribute to our experience. On Sunday morning, our group drove out into the wilderness to begin our hike to Jericho, the lowest city in the world and debatably the oldest. The hiking was a welcome change of pace from the classroom studies and lectures that we were becoming accustomed to. The weather was wonderfully sunny and warm, perfect for the basking, wading, and exploring we did at the spring we came across. This spring morphed into a pretty ancient aqueduct that we followed for the next several hours. Some of us decided to really test the reliability of our WaterBasics filter bottles and took advantage of this available running, but not particularly translucent, water source. Thankfully, no adverse effects tarnished our time of appreciation for the gorgeous landscape throughout the rest of hike. When we reached Jericho, it was now more than comfortably hot – perks of being the lowest city in the world. We spent the late afternoon visiting Zaccheus’ sycamore tree, doing some downtown meandering, and hunting for cheap snacks before taking a bus back home.

At first, I believed the Monday group had it the roughest; the Arabic final exam was that morning.  The rest of the day was pretty open besides an afternoon lecture and an evening soccer game. The lecture was on the influence of international funding in the occupation and the USA’s place in that. The game was a challenge issued to our whole group by the Beit Sahour city league girls team. These were high schoolers, and despite our best efforts, they beat us 3-1. Johnny, our very passionate de facto coach, kept us entertained with his yelling how bad we were from his sideline perspective.

“She’s not your grandmother! Don’t ever let her do that to you again!”
“I am going to kill you all after this!”
“That Austin… all he cares about his hair.”
A rematch was scheduled for Friday.
It was then that I learned that I was not alone. A wave of sickness had rippled throughout our numbers, displaying the same symptoms at around the same time. We have our suspicions. Remember that aqueduct from 36 hours previous? Trust us, they said. The filter will protect you, they said.
Throughout the remainder of the week, there were many more speakers. With the Badil organization, we had a pretty uplifting discussion concerning finding creative solutions to the plight of Palestinian refugees. We visited the Tent of Nations, a olive tree-planting organization whose project leader offered an extremely insightful message of non-violent resistance to the occupation. Its mottos include “We Refuse to Be Enemies” as well as “We Refuse to Be Victims”. Those of our group who were healthy even helped clear some bushes for future planting (while the rest of us sat pathetically in a cave). From the organization of Kairos Palestine, we heard about the call to Palestinian Christians and perspective of a religious movement in resistance. The energy and intention behind all of these different groups and all of the various approaches to the problem is most empowering. So much of what we’ve been seeing and hearing is only angering, saddening, or both, and the exposure to some strong forces of hope has given us something to help bear the weight of the reality here.
Two additionally positive notes to close this week on: First, EMU won the rematch 5-0, and Johnny did not kill us all. Second, we had a lovely farewell dinner party on Saturday night with our friends from ATG. It also served as a graduation of sorts from Arabic studies. The food was fantastic, as usual, but the live music was perhaps even more spectacular. What is reportedly one of the best bands in Palestine jammed out on the oud, bouzouki, and kanun as we did some mightily awkward dancing. That’s a good memory to end our stay here with – the memory that beautiful Palestinian culture can still shine through the conflict that has overshadowed so much of its identity in the world’s eyes.
Next stop: Israel, the other main player in this conflict. What stories will we see and hear there, I wonder? How will we be able to reconcile them with that which we now carry with us?
Stay tuned.
-Silas Clymer
Middle East 2019 group at Giza

Middle East: Old City of Jerusalem

24 March 2019

Back in Jerusalem again! After a week of relaxing free travel we returned to what has become a pretty familiar city. We spent our week staying at the Ecce Homo convent in the Old City. The convent itself commemorates and stands at the location where Pontius Pilate scourged Jesus and declared “Ecce homo!” Or “Behold the man!” The building is built out of beautiful stone work and houses a chapel, classrooms, and underground cisterns. My favorite part of the building by far is the terrace on the second floor that overlooks the Old City and the Dome of the Rock and Temple Mount. The convent is located in the Muslim Quarter so we enjoy hearing the echoing calls to prayer from the various neighboring mosques each day.

Our location allowed our group to experience a vivid diversity of cultures and religions. Though we are in the Muslim Quarter, the Christian boulevard of the Via Dolorosa runs through and with it brings a large number of Christian pilgrims. The Via Dolorosa was the route where Jesus was taken along at the time of his crucifixion. It ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where tradition places the tomb where Jesus was buried and resurrected. Each day tour groups can be seen walking the route carrying large wooden crosses and singing in their native languages.

Our curriculum this week was a mixture of classes and getting out to experience the area. We learned a lot of new information about Jewish culture and heritage from guest speaker Debbie. Our guide for a day Jared also gave us a modern tour of the Old City seeing the four quarters Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Armenian and how they are similar and different. After learning so much about the ancient peoples who lived here it was fun to see and learn about Jerusalem’s modern day residents.

We also enjoyed a week-long Hebrew class with our Israeli teacher Sarah. Our inner child was brought out as we learned through songs, dance, and sometimes even puppets. By the end of the week we had learned the Hebrew “Aleph-bet” and were joyfully singing our favorites songs we had heard that week.

Outside of class, we had a great time exploring this new part of the city and all it has to offer. This Thursday evening at sundown marked the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Purim. Celebrations can be best described as a mixture of Halloween and Mardi Gras. People of all ages dress up in costumes and fill the streets singing and dancing. It was fun to see everyone come together and celebrate, and really get to experience local culture. Many of us also had the valuable experience of visiting the Western Wall during Shabbat. As the celebrations of Purim wound down the day of rest began at sundown on Friday and people began to file into the plaza near the wall. It is really amazing to see so many people gather together for prayer. In the plaza people gathered to sing traditional songs and circle dance to celebrate the end of the week as well.

Jerusalem is truly a city like no other. It is a place where the monotheistic religions of the world converge into a beautiful diversity of culture and backgrounds. The combination of this with the ways in which visitors are able to walk quite literally in the footsteps of Jesus has made our time here a wonderful time of reflection on religion, values, and culture.

-Erin Beidler

Middle East 2019 group at Giza

Middle East: Independent Travels

Independent Travel

Last week was one we’ve all been looking forward to for a long time: free travel! After our final exam at JUC, we split up and began a week of exploring on our own. Anisa, Carly, Emily, Erin, Rachael and I went to Turkey. We flew into Istanbul and spent a night there. After exploring the city a bit and visiting the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia, we flew to Antalya and then took a bus to Kas. This small, seaside town was where we spent the majority of our week. The highlight of our trip was a boat ride around the various sites of Kas. We visited a small village only accessible by boat, swam over an ancient, sunken city, and explored the ruins of Roman town. For the last few days of free travel, we took a bus back to Antalya and stayed in the old city, Kaleici. There, we did a lot of walking, shopping, and eating yummy food. I personally loved all of the free roaming cats and dogs that are both loved and cared for the people of Turkey.

– Audrey Hershberger

Below are some of the highlights from the rest of the groups:

Our group devoted time to Israel and a couple of her choice cities: Netanya and Tel Aviv. Both being costal, we were able to take many relaxing walks on the beach and experience life by the sea. In each city, we all took time to chill, cook, watch movies, shop, and explore. There were some interesting moments, especially noting the city scene during Shabbat (everything was closed except for the bars, and they were jam packed!) and hearing the sirens, explosions, and loud speakers in Tel Aviv during the rocket mishap. All in all, our group would agree that the week consisted of well needed rest and appreciation for some of Israel’s cities.

-Marianna Lipold

Myself, Nealon, and Tor ended up traveling to Istanbul for our independent travel, staying there for the full week at a little Airbnb apartment about ten minutes’ walk from Taksim Square. Over the course of the week, we ended up traveling throughout a lot of Istanbul and visiting its many historical attractions – the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar, the Turkish and Muslim Arts Museum, and more. Istanbul has a quite deep and rich history that we got to appreciate a bit during our time there, thanks to its position as a major city in the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires (under the names of Byzantium and Constantinople previously).

On the final day we met with a Turkish friend of Tor’s dad who showed us some of the classic Ottoman mosques that are not well known enough to be considered tourist attractions. His deep knowledge of Istanbul and Turkish culture in general gave us more insight into modern day life in Istanbul, something that visiting historic sites fails to reveal.Besides the history and culture, we also got to enjoy a lot of local cuisine – kebabs, Ottoman food, burgers, and tea, among other things. Nealon’s father also joined us for part of the trip. He was able to give us the perspective of a more experienced traveler and helped us to organize our days better than when we were by ourselves; as well as appreciate our time there more fully as he is 73 and was not able to make the trip until now.

During our time here, we got to get around town a lot using the metro system here – once you get used to it, it’s quite cheap, and will take you to pretty much all of the major sites. We also saw at least a few hundred different cats during the week there; it seems that Istanbul takes care of its cats, with many food and water bowls out and about in small nooks for the various felines if you look for them. All in all, it was an excellent experience and an enjoyable window into Turkish life.

-Graham Stauffer

Some of our trip statistics: three people, six countries (Hungary, Czech Republic, Austria, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey), 101.3 miles walked, one giant chocolate bar, three hostels, four buses, two airplanes, and one heck of a week.

Some of our highlights: (Allison) In Prague we stayed at Art Hole Hostel for two of our nights. As interestingly beautiful as the sites in Prague were, I probably could’ve spent most of my time there. The hostel employees and guests alike were inviting, hospitable, and very willing to have a conversation. In Vienna we got to experience an opera soloist in the state opera house. Even though I (Jessie) don’t really care for opera that much, it was an incredible experience. The energy in the crowd and the passion of the soloist gave me a whole new appreciation of this form of art. In Turkey we bathed with the locals in the famous Turkish Baths. I (Isaac) went alone because they were gender segregated. It provided a sauna, a shower, a bath, awkward conversation, and a unique perspective of the Turkish middle aged man.

-Allison Shelly, Isaac Andreas, Jessie Landis

My group (Collin, Lauren, Silas, Karissa and I) spent our time on the southern coast of Turkey. We flew into Antalya, making a 5 hour drive along the scenic coastal route towards Fethiye. On our way, we stopped in to visit Linford (and his boat), which was definitely a highlight from our trip. The week was a nice mix of slowing down and relaxing as well as getting out and exploring. Some of our other highlights consisted of visiting 2 different beaches, driving to Pamukkale (thermal pools located by an ancient Roman city), getting Turkish baths (THAT was an experience), and renting out a speedboat on the Mediterranean. Now we definitely have some stories to tell about them—those are for another time, though. All in all, Turkey is gorgeous. If you enjoy seeing the sea, lush green valleys and snow-capped mountains at the same time, Turkey is the place to be!

-Austin Yoder

This week, Isaac Alderfer, Luke, and I hiked a section of the Lycian Way in southern Turkey, from Fethiye to Kaş. We loved the diversity of terrain the trail took us through, from beaches along the Mediterranean to mountains with a bit of snow still left on them. Another highlight was walking, eating, and sometimes staying in small towns that showed us a less-accessible side of the country. Although we had a couple of rainy days and some trouble finding lodging in the off-season, we took advantage of the generosity of strangers (hitchhiked) a bit to make it to our destination on time. We ended with two relaxing days in Kaş and Antalya, including swimming, sunsets, and Turkish delight.

-Ben Stutzman

For Skylar and I, our week of spring break was spent touring around the cities of Europe. We were able to visit Budapest for two days, Prague for three and Vienna for two, stopping in Cyprus for a few hours as part of our layover back to Tel Aviv, Israel. In each place we walked and rode public transportation to see the different famous sites: the Schoenbrunn Palace and Vienna State Opera in Austria, Buda Castle and baths in Budapest, and Prague’s many museums and churches. Each place had something different to offer in their cities while at the same time were all very similar in feeling and architecture. Over the course of the week our emotions and physical states ranged high and low but resulted in experiences and memories that will last a lifetime.

-Natalie Stoltzfus

Middle East 2019 group at Giza

Middle East: Field Studies with JUC

15 March, 2019

This past week was our second and final week at Jerusalem University College. After taking our first test Saturday morning and a free afternoon, we started off strong with field studies again Sunday morning. This past week was quite a bit different from our first week at Jerusalem University College as we spent much of our days and nights on the field.

With Kaitlyn, our instructor, we traversed the Mediterranean coast from Ashkelon to Cesarean Maritma, explored the hot dry southern area of the Negev, visited the Golan up by Syria, and sailed across the Sea of Galilee by way of Capernum. We learned in freezing wind, scorching heat, hail, and ate countless pita sandwiches. We also visited many tels  and ruins of historical significance such as Kirebet Qumran, Beer Sheeba, Ceasarea Philipi, Magdala,  Megiddo, and Dan (in fact there are over 35 places where I recorded notes). Now, thanks to Kaitlyn, we can all locate said places on a map, describe its soil type, draw the major routes which go through it, and name the Bible story which took place there.

Learning and reading Bible stories in their actual locations will forever change the way in which I read the text. It is still surreal to think of all the places we walked, and my understanding of the Bible has grown from standing in Caesarea where Paul was imprisoned, the ruins of Megiddo where Josiah dies, and Mt. Carmel where the Israelites worshiped Bael.  The most impactful story was seeing the types of rock which Moses hit in the wilderness of the Negev instead of speaking to it like he was supposed to.   This rock usually has water built up behind it, thus Moses striking it was not a reflection of Gods power, as it was when he struck the rock in the Sinai, but rather a portrayal of his own selfishness. Learning this information transformed how I understand this particular story.  Kaityln also continually encouraged us to examine our own faith and ask deep questions such as: what do we as people of faith do when the archeology and the text don’t line up?

While we spent much of the week taking in and processing vast amounts of information, we had plenty of time to enjoy ourselves and soak in this once in a lifetime experience we are having. Some highlights included swimming-rather floating in the Dead Sea, hiking Hippus at sunrise, and Isaac Alderfer beating the JUC record of running up Masada by one second with a time of 2:31. My own personal highlight was the hotel we stayed at which was right on the Sea of Galilee. Not only was the buffet scrumptious, but our bungalows were right on the water which served as a beautiful backdrop to our academic learning. The proximity to the sea was perfect for morning swimming as well as sunset swimming, and, of course, night swims.

Now, after taking our last test, our time at JUC has come to a close and we are all splitting off in groups for our free travel, for a much needed break before we transition to the next part of our program.

-Anisa Leonard


Middle East 2019 group at Giza

Middle East: Jerusalem

This week has found us transitioning to Jerusalem, our next port of call on this journey. Here, we’re staying and working with Jerusalem University College, where we’re focusing more on Biblical geography in and around the Promised Land, right here where we are.

Jerusalem itself is only a few miles from Beit Sahour, about a half hour drive in our bus, but the two cities are very different in some ways. One prominent difference being that water is much more easily accessible here for citizens of Israel and Jerusalem, as observed by the distinct lack of water tanks on the rooftops here. Aside from that, the whole atmosphere of the city is different in a way that’s hard to describe – little things like having lanes on the road and stoplights as well as crosswalks, more variety in architecture, the mood of the people around here, and much more.

Jerusalem University College is located just outside the southwestern corner of the Old City here, with easy access to the Zion Gate on the southern wall and the Jaffa gate on the western wall. We’ve had the opportunity to go explore the Old City both on our own and as part of the many field studies that we go out on every day as part of our academic program here. The Old City’s four quarters – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Armenian – are all filled with various holy sites (like Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock atop it, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Cenacle where tradition says the Last Supper was held, to name a few) as well as a diverse myriad of people and shops throughout. There are few other places with this level of historical density, which certainly makes it a new adventure to explore every time we visit it.

Besides the Old City, our teacher Kaitlyn has also been busy both teaching us in the classroom about the Biblical landscapes around and outside of Jerusalem – regions such as Benjamin, Shephelah, Philistia, Judah, the Negev, and the Galilee, and their many geographical features. We’ve been inundated with information ranging from major roads, cities, the type of rocks and terrain; the empires and peoples, large and small, using the region as their playing boards over the ages; which Biblical stories have happened where, and how specific geographical contexts can explain far more aspects of those stories than we would have considered otherwise, and much more.

JUC’s program also has a strong focus on field study, meaning while we do spend hours in the classroom, we spend far more outside of it. Our trekking is mainly via bus, with many stops to experience places for ourselves as well as listening to Kaitlyn discuss the various places and their historical and geographical significance. More than a few bad puns have been had by both sides, and we’ve plied her with countless questions as we explore the area to actually experience the Biblical land for ourselves. Some of the places we’ve been to include places around Jerusalem like the City of David (where we had a lengthy walk through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, an underground water channel terminating in the Pool of Siloam, the place where Jesus healed a blind man in John 9), Mount Scopus, the Mount of Olives, and the Old City as mentioned previously. Outside Jerusalem, we’ve also touched Jericho, the baptismal site of Jesus, Gethsemane (where Jesus experienced agony and arrest the night before his crucifixion), Bet Shemesh, and Azekah among others that I’m probably forgetting. This coming week, we have more exploration in the Negev and the Galilee regions to look forward to.

With the move to Jerusalem and the JUC program, I find myself considering some of the other differences in our own situations – here, we haven’t really touched on current issues here in Israel much, or their relations with Palestinians, whereas back in Beit Sahour that was a focal point of our experience there. However, we’ll be touching on those subjects much more later once we move on from JUC, as well as learning Hebrew. The end of next week also brings with it the start of our week of independent travel, and we’ve been getting many of our final plans together for what to do then. With all the hopping between places, even our longer stays at any one given place like Beit Sahour or here at JUC still feel ephemeral, but the next adventure on this trip is always beckoning, pulling us to the next place.

-Graham Stauffer

Middle East 2019 group at Giza

Middle East: Bethlehem University, authors, the wall, Herodian

Feb 16, 2019

Hello friends! Since our last post we’ve enjoyed another week in beautiful Beit Sahour. Week 2 in Palestine has included more bonding with our host families, several trips to local sites, and  – you guessed it – many more falafel sandwiches.

We have continued to enjoy lectures from professors from the local Bethlehem University on various topics including Palestinian literature and history, women’s issues, and Christians in the area. My favorite part of our lectures so far has been reading poetry from prominent Palestinian poets Mahmoud Darwish, Jamal Assadi and others. Poetry has a way of conveying concepts and ideas in a way unlike any other. My reading list has nearly doubled from Dr. Shomali’s recommendations and I look forward to getting started on some new novels soon!

Alongside these lectures our Arabic courses add more valuable learning to our days. We’ve learned a lot of helpful phrases and vocabulary over the past two weeks that we’ve been excitedly using with shopkeepers and taxi drivers around town whenever we can. Rachael and I have had a great time practicing with our host mom Suha, who is an English teacher. She provides helpful corrections as we go and we in turn provide entertainment to the rest of the family with our wacky pronunciations and at times questionable sentence structure. They particularly enjoyed when Rachael asked me in Arabic “Is the coffee hot?” And I replied “No, I’m a student.”

Our first trip of the week was to the Applied Research Institute Jerusalem where we learned more about the separation wall, occupation, and water issues within the West Bank. We had an engaging conversation about the role of the United States within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The presentation was very helpful in gaining understanding of different aspects of the situation as our group continues to engage and process all that we are hearing.

We also enjoyed a visit to the impressive archaeological site of Herodion. Situated on a hilltop overlooking Jerusalem and the surrounding towns the summer palace and fortress built by King Herod, the ruler of Judea, later became his final resting place. The site is an architectural marvel that includes an amphitheater, palace, and a series of underground tunnels. The king’s tomb lies somewhere within the site but remains unfound due to erosion. The view from the top of the mountain had birds-eye views of the lush valley below including the glimmering gold Dome of the Rock and the dark green Mount of Olives.

Our final visit of the week was to the Talita Kumi School in the neighboring town of Beit Jala. The grounds serve as both a Lutheran school and an environmental center. The center does important research regarding birds who are native to the area and who migrate through Palestine through bird tagging and other environmental initiatives. The center welcomes students from surrounding towns and helps educate them about local wildlife and how to help preserve and protect the natural beauty of their home.

It’s hard to believe that we have just one more week in Beit Sahour. It has been such a valuable experience to live with, speak with, and learn from Palestinians from all walks of life. This has easily been my favorite part of the trip so far and I look forward to what this next and final week will bring!

-Erin Beidler

Middle East 2019 group at Giza

Middle East: Beit Sahour, host families, Arabic studies

  1. Feb. 2019

After three weeks of hotel-hopping (and bedouin camp-hopping), we’re glad to be somewhere we can really settle in: Beit Sahour. A Palestinian town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Beit Sahour is south of Jerusalem and a short walk downhill from Bethlehem. Of its 15,000 people, 75% are Christians, and we’re all staying with Palestinian Christian host families for the three weeks we’re here.

Austin and I are loving our stay with Reema and Philippe, our host grandparents. Reema has told us that we are her grandchildren now, and she treats us with wonderful hospitality, patient help with our Arabic, and delicious food every breakfast and supper—I ate so many stuffed grape leaves, stuffed tomatoes, and stuffed zucchini on Thursday that I felt like a stuffed vegetable myself. We’ve had fun hanging out with Reema and Philippe’s grandchildren, who live nearby, in the evenings. Elianna, 18, is fluent in English, and tells Austin and me great stories about her life in college and travels to other countries. Ayman, 15, is our business-minded host brother who invited us to play bilyardo (pool) with him and his friends a few nights ago… we didn’t stand a chance. And Jeries, 7, entertained/exhausted us with hours of hide-and-seek, tag, and the floor is lava on our second night here. He and Elianna are helping us learn our Arabic numbers and colors through UNO (or should I say, wāḥad?).

About half of our days are spent at our home base, a classroom in Beit Sahour near the Old City. On those days, we have a 3-hour Arabic lesson in the morning. We’re split up into two groups and focus on learning practical, spoken language that we can put to use right away on the street and in our host families. After the lesson, we’re on our own for lunch with a 15-shekel stipend from Linford and Janet. Here our strategies vary, with some spending most of their money on a 12-shekel shawarma sandwich, while others go with the standard 4-shekel falafel sandwich and supplement with an apple, pomegranate, or piece of freshly-baked pita bread.

In the afternoon, we gather again for a lecture and discussion. We began by hearing about Palestinian literature and the beginnings of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from two professors from Bethlehem University. On Friday, we watched The Wanted 18, a funny but impactful movie about Beit Sahour during the first intifada in 1993. It tells the story of how the citizens of the town (including some people we’ve met or will meet) resisted the Israeli occupation by buying cows to start a dairy farm, and later hiding them when the Israelis tried to shut it down.

When we’re not in the classroom, we’re out on field trips throughout the West Bank. Our first day was a tour of Beit Sahour and Bethlehem, including the Biblical sites of the Shepherds’ Field and the Church of the Nativity, which was built on top of the cave where Jesus may have been born. In multiple places, we saw the border wall that separates the West Bank from Israel and Israeli settlements. In building the wall, Israel inadvertently created a massive canvas for Palestinians to express their opposition to it. We could have spent a whole day along the wall in Bethlehem just looking at the graffiti, which ranges from serious (stencils of children playing with barbed wire) to humorous (“MAKE HUMMUS NOT WALLS”) to cartoons that mock Donald Trump and his intentions to build a similar wall on the US-Mexico border. My favorite graffiti is back in Beit Sahour, a picture of a “flower thrower” by the mysterious British street artist Banksy.

Another of our day trips took us north of Jerusalem, and along the way, we admired the landscape after a few days of rain: beautiful green hills, vineyards, and olive trees, in contrast to the tan desert scenery we’d gotten used to in Egypt and Jordan. We stopped at Taybeh, a town where Jesus went after raising Lazarus from the dead, and which also has a famous brewery. In Jifna, we saw the headquarters from which the Romans operated for an assault on Jerusalem around 70 CE, giving us another glimpse into the empire which has left traces everywhere we’ve visited so far. For lunch, we wandered in the rain through downtown Ramallah, the current political and economic capital of the West Bank, and the struggle between shawarma and falafel continued. Some of us couldn’t resist and opted for a bit of both. We ended by visiting the new Yasser Arafat museum to learn more about the Palestinian leader who tried to make peace with Israel.

While we continue to enjoy the manageable and rewarding challenges of learning some Arabic and living with host families, our conversations with the locals and experiences on our day trips remind us of the much larger, much more sobering issues in the places that surround us. The divide between Israelis and Palestinians seems impossible to bridge—one of our Palestinian lecturers told us that there is “no hope at all in our present situation.” It can certainly feel hopeless to learn about a conflict that began more than 100 years ago and realize that it’s still going on today, with very little progress made.

But in the spirit of making hummus, not walls, let’s end with some of my friends’ favorite Arabic words and phrases they’ve learned recently:

Natalie: yalla — “let’s go,” because it brings back memories of being in Egypt with our guide Samer.

Collin: fi lmišmeš — “when hell freezes over,” or literally, “in the apricot,” because it’s funny.

Jessie: ilbēt bētek — “feel at home,” or literally, “the house is your house,” because it’s really sweet.

Elliott: haġar, wara’a, ʿm’as — “rock, paper, scissors,” because our Jordanian guide Mahmoud’s son taught it to me.

Anisa: waqt — “time,” because it sounds cool.

Luke: yōm saʿīd — “have a good/happy day,” because my host dad smiles whenever I say it to him.

Allison: tšarrafna — “nice to meet you,” because when I get the chance to say it, it means I’ve met someone new.

Daniil: inšālla — “God willing,” because it often implies maybe, maybe not, I’m not in control.

Marianna: rummān — “pomegranate,” because I’ve indulged so much on this trip. Good memories.

Isaac Alderfer: šāy — “tea,” because it’s a part of every day and I need it to function.

Carly: ḥilu — “sweet,” because I’m eating too many kinder bars, the candy is awesome.

Silas: habībi — “friend, lover, or anything in between,” because it was my nickname in Elementary Arabic class.

Karissa: also habībi, because it’s fun to say and you hear it a lot here.

Nealon: hašīš — “grass,” because I like grass.

Rachael: šukran — “thank you,” because it’s the only word I can consistently remember when I try to speak Arabic on the streets.

Isaac Andreas: šwayy — “a little,” because I don’t always want lots.

Erin: mumtaz! — “awesome!” because we’ve seen so many awesome things, so I use it a lot.

-Ben Stutzman


Middle East 2019 group at Giza

Middle East: Jordan – desert hikes, refugees, and Biblical story

Greetings friends,

Since Graham left off at the Bedouin camp we have seen, heard, smelled and experienced many more new things.

After leaving the camp, we as a group rode on the bus to the small village of Dana where we were to begin our adventure on the Jordan trail.

The Jordan trail goes from Dana down into Petra, and we as a group were extremely fortunate to spend three days hiking on this trail.  The first day of hiking was mostly down hill into Feynon, where we spent the night at a beautiful vegetarian eco-lodge which had a pasta dish that changed my life. Day two of hiking was mostly flat and took us through little Petra and to the Seven Wonders Bedouin camp, where we stayed for the night. Our third day of hiking took us through some of Petra itself allowing us to see Petra’s monastery, gorgeous ravines and many, many goats. Continue reading

Middle East 2019 group at Giza