BYU’s Jerusalem Center doesn’t - in fact, can’t - do missionary work, but it wins converts: Latter-day Saints

Students leave their studies at the prominent hillside facility with a deeper understanding of faith — their own and that of the Holy Land’s Jews, Muslims and Christians.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) The BYU Jerusalem Center in East Jerusalem on April 11, 2022.

Jerusalem • Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies faced such opposition in the mid-1980s that Jeffrey R. Holland, then the school’s president, was greeted at an Israeli airport by several hundred yeshiva students, carrying signs that said, “Jeff, Go Home.”

In the intervening decades, though, more than 10,000 students with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have studied there.

In fact, Latter-day Saint students and tourists provide enough business for Jimmy’s Bazaar in Jerusalem to specialize in carving Book of Mormon figures and the faith’s “First Vision” in olive wood. (Owner Jimmy Abu Sbeih proudly shows off a photo of himself with Latter-day Saint apostles M. Russell Ballard and D. Todd Christofferson to potential buyers.)

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) Jimmy Abu Sbeih holds a rendition of Joseph Smith’s "First Vision" carved in olive wood in Jerusalem, April 10, 2022.

A Jewish newspaper recently called the school “a benign fixture on the Jerusalem scene.”

BYU professor James R. Kearl, who has been assistant to the university president for the center since 1989, says the eight-tiered, 125,000-square-foot building — across from the Old City and overlooking the Mount of Olives and Kidron Valley — is more than that.

“In a low-key and important way, it has become part of the community, instead of being seen as foreign,” Kearl says. “It fulfills the role of a church presence in the Holy Land.”

And that is done without the faith’s signature outreach tool — proselytizing.

Indeed, fear of the church’s evangelizing is what spurred the opposition in the first place.

Idea pushed by Spencer W. Kimball

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) A Latter-day Saint tour group on the terrace of the BYU Jerusalem Center on Saturday, April 9, 2022

The original idea for the center, espoused first by the church’s then-president, Spencer W. Kimball, in 1979, was that the building would establish a presence for the Utah-based faith in the Holy Land as well as house BYU students who were on a study abroad semester there.

The church hoped to buy the property on which the center now sits, but, in 1983, it discovered that the Israel Land Authority was the owner.

After a long discussion, that body was persuaded to lease the land to the church, so, in 1984, both parties agreed to begin construction, Kearl says, without a long-term lease.

Soon, ultra-Orthodox Jews on Mount Scopus launched serious opposition that was “pretty nasty and pretty long,” Kearl says. It came to a head with threats from the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) to expropriate the building and “pay the Mormons off.”

The U.S. Congress got involved and made its own threats, the BYU administrator says. If the government tried to take the center (by then partially built), Israel would lose access to U.S. resources.

Teddy Kollek, then Jerusalem’s longtime mayor, solidly backed the church’s project.

Kollek hoped to make Jerusalem an international secular city, Kearl says, but his vision was rejected, and he lost his seat.

Israeli officials eventually offered the church a long-term lease — if its leaders would agree not to permit proselytizing.

That, too, was not an easy sell.

A long and lively meeting of Latter-day Saint general authorities took place July 31, 1985, to discuss the matter, Holland, now an apostle, writes in a BYU Studies article.

“The church had never signed such an undertaking,” he writes. “There were places where we did not [proselytize] but we had never signed anything in that regard.”

Swearing off missionary work

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) The Orson Hyde Memorial Garden near the BYU Jerusalem Center on Saturday, April 9, 2022

The discussion went around and around, he writes, until one leader (whom Holland does not name) stood and declared:

“I’m willing to sign with everybody else, but just remember that I would rather walk away from any number of Jerusalem Center projects than ever compromise our integrity as a church.…If we say we’re not going to [proselytize], then we don’t [proselytize]. There won’t be any quibbling, there won’t be any behind-the-scenes fudging or under-the-table activity. So, Brethren, whatever we’re going to do, let’s make sure we understand the full implication of that before we put ink to that paper.”

They signed.

Thus, from then to now, all Latter-day teachers, students and members know that they cannot share their faith or do and say anything that would lead someone to be interested in the church. Only members can attend services, and no Israeli citizen or resident can be baptized. Indeed, the center has no baptismal font.

The center was supposed to be a “First Presidency building” that also housed students, Kearl says. Now that has been flipped with BYU being the main player but allowing it to be used for services and members.

It also provides important services to the community — concerts, lectures, humanitarian projects and is open free of charge for workshops and conferences.

Plus, the center employs more than 50 locals, which is not a lot, Kearl says, “but it’s not trivial either.”

An ‘island of peace’

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) Eric Huntsman, academic director of BYU Jerusalem Center, at the Orson Hyde Memorial Garden in Jerusalem, April 8, 2022.

Eric Huntsman, the center’s academic director, arrived in April to open the center after it was closed for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and now has completed his first semester with students.

The exuberant scholar declares unequivocally: “I love living in Israel.”

Sure, he fully understands the country’s tensions, but the job brings together so many of Huntsman’s interests, including history, scripture, religion and culture.

And the students and faculty eat up all the historic and biblical sites, while learning about Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In addition to courses on the Bible and Near Eastern history, students are required to take two additional classes, one on Zionism and Judaism, taught by a modern Orthodox Jew, and one on Islam and the Palestinian struggle, taught by an area Muslim. They also study Hebrew or Arabic languages and visit a variety of churches, synagogues and mosques (including the most sacred ones on the al-Aqsa compound).

The center’s executive director is a secular Israeli Jew, and the associate director for facility and administration is a Palestinian Christian.

Along with other groups, the center tries to be, Huntsman says, “an island of peace.”

‘It was heaven’

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune The chapel in the BYU Jerusalem Center overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem on Saturday, April 9, 2022

For Mark Ellison — a BYU professor who taught the Old and New Testaments at the center this spring, and accompanied students on field trips all over the Holy Land, Greece and Jordan — the experience was unforgettable.

“For me — someone who loves the Holy Land, religious history, the Bible, BYU students, and living Christian faith as a Latter-day Saint,” says Ellison, who now is back in Provo, “it was heaven.”

It would be hard to come up with “a more ideal setting,” he says, “for deepening our understanding of faith, ancient and modern.”

Many of his Latter-day Saint students are “quite familiar with the Book of Mormon and have read it multiple times,” he says, “but few have read the Bible through or feel as confident with it.”

This program offers “a fabulous, one-of-a-kind opportunity to develop biblical literacy and historical consciousness by becoming familiar with the narratives, history and religious ideas,” he says. “There’s nothing like studying the Bible on-site — reading the Sermon on the Mount on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee, rehearsing the Assyrian invasion while at the ruins of Lachish, and so on.”

On top of that, Ellison says, students make friends among the local populace, “enriching their perspectives and enlarging their hearts.”

They come back, the BYU professor says, “more compassionate and intelligent global citizens.”

Like going home

((Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Quentin L. Cook speaks to Latter-day Saint and Jewish scholars at BYU's Jerusalem Center on June 5, 2019.

Jerusalem Center alumni consistently say “that as strange as the Holy Land should have seemed, they were surprised by how familiar it was,” reports April Giddings Cobb, chair of the center’s alumni association. “They say that going to Jerusalem was like going home, which is something that they hadn’t expected.”

To many, their stay at the center transforms them, Cobb says. “Nearly every story of how miracles and change came to these young people during their time abroad somehow comes back around to how they grew to know the Savior and how they found that he loves them through this experience.”

After that, she says, they have “a greater understanding of the scriptures and their hearts more firmly anchored in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

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