Although the building has remained the same, the feel around the Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center has evolved since the facility opened three decades ago.
“It started out with a high level of suspicion and hostility, and it is now firmly integrated in the community,” said Jim Kearl, the assistant to the university president for the BYU Jerusalem Center.
Kearl has been involved with the center since 1989, one month after it opened. This year is the center’s 30th anniversary, which was celebrated earlier this month with a reunion event in Provo.
It’s more than the neighborhood feel that has changed. The center currently sees 84 students at a time, which will expand to 88 starting this winter. The enrollment is at about half the center’s capacity. Kearl said it was reduced after the center reopened in 2007 following rising tensions in the area.
“Mostly it has to do with the changing security environment,” Kearl said.
Prior to the enrollment cut, the center would take students regardless of which university they attended. After reopening, it decided to only admit students who have attended a full year of college and are enrolled at BYU, BYU-Idaho or BYU-Hawaii.
About 70% of the students who apply for the program’s lottery get in. Kearl said students apply not only for the study abroad experience, but for the religious aspect, as well. Being in the Middle East, he said changes a student’s perspective by giving them context to scriptures.
“They want to go study where the scriptures were developed, where the prophets roamed the land and where Christ lived, and taught, and gave up his life,” Kearl said.
For Allie Beckett, attending has also become a family tradition. Beckett, a senior studying family life with an emphasis in human development, grew up hearing stories about her mother’s experiences in Jerusalem. Her mother attended the BYU Jerusalem Center in 1987 and was in the first group of students to move into the current building.
“Because of her, I made the same goal to work hard and save up my money so that I could come to Jerusalem and have those experiences, too,” Beckett, who is at the BYU Jerusalem Center, said in an interview over social media. “It is really neat to know that my mom can totally relate to all of the incredible experiences that I am currently having.”
The students live together in dorm-style rooms, share classes and eat together. Their instructors double as church leaders.
“Every day I look at the beautiful, elegant, white-stoned halls of the Jerusalem Center with its arched windows and stunning view of the Old City and I am filled with gratitude that I am here right now,” Beckett said.
The unique setting also means that students have to follow additional rules, such as requiring more conservative dress than BYU’s honor code requires.
“We have rules that we think protect students from potential problems and help them become better members of the community,” Kearl said.
The center is located within the Palestinian part of the city. Kearl said the students don’t dress like locals, and that the center wants its attendees to easily be recognized as students of the BYU Jerusalem Center.
“They are not primarily identified as Americans,” Kearl said. “Their primary identification is ‘young Mormons,’ or as ‘students of the Mormon university.’”
The students also aren’t allowed to proselytize as part of an agreement from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to quell resistance to the center’s opening.
The center talks to students about being aware of what is going on around them, and has an internal messaging system that allows students to be alerted about issues. If there is uproar in the Old City, Kearl said the center will wait for another day to visit it.
“We try in every way to give them as much latitude and freedom in terms of exploring as possible,” Kearl said. “But we want them to be smart.”
Kearl said the center has actively worked to have a reputation of being neutral in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He expects the center eventually expanding its enrollment back to pre-2007 levels, which would also mean accepting students from non-church-owned universities, but does not see that decision being made within the near future.