Rice students explore Jerusalem up close

Few cities in the world possess a religious significance as rich and storied as Jerusalem does. Located on a plateau in the Judean Mountains between the Mediterranean and the Dead seas, it is one of the oldest cities in the world and considered holy to the three major Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Over spring break, 15 Rice students were able to experience Jerusalem and its people in person as part of a first-of-its-kind course offered this semester by the School of Humanities’ Program in Jewish Studies.

The Rice group makes the Owl sign above the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. Photos by Matthias Henze.

The course, Jerusalem: Holy City in Time and Imagination, is being co-taught by Matthias Henze, the Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor of Biblical Studies and professor in religion, and Melissa Weininger, a lecturer in modern Hebrew. Both led the students on the nine-day trip, which traversed from the Mount of Olives to the Dead Sea and the West Bank. The students’ travel and lodging costs were paid for in part by supporters of the Program in Jewish Studies.

“Instead of simply ‘covering’ the long history of Jerusalem in chronological fashion, this course aims to provide students with the critical tools necessary to develop their own analysis of Jerusalem today,” Henze said. “The thematic emphasis of our class is on the integration of the old and the new, on the interconnection of history and modern life. The trip allowed us to explore how Judaism, Christianity and Islam claim, create and maintain sacred spaces and experience firsthand conflicting claims to authority and religious meaning.”

Departing Houston Feb. 27, the group arrived at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport the following evening after nearly 16 hours. The morning after arriving, the group began its weeklong, chock-full itinerary by heading up to the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, followed by a visit to the Israel Museum. The students were aided by a “travel book” — papers the students had prepared and presented in advance on 15 historical sites in and around Jerusalem.

For the diverse group of students, the trip proved eye-opening. “We found learning about Jerusalem has a cross-cultural appeal,” Weininger said.

Jena Lopez, a Baker College sophomore and double major in economics and political science, was drawn by the course’s premise. “I have always wanted to go to Jerusalem since I was a child,” she said. “But I was not interested in a religious tour, which tends to ignore the modern state of Israel, present a one-sided view and sometimes ignore historical facts. I wanted to travel with a group who held different views than I, and one that was academically rigorous.” A Catholic, Lopez had given a presentation on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is venerated as Calvary, or Golgatha, the site where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. “I chose it because it is one of the most holy sites in my faith, and I wanted to know more about the site beyond its religious significance,” she said.

The students enter the Garden Tomb in East Jerusalem, considered by some to be the place of Jesus’ interment and resurrection.

For Katherine McElroy, a Sid Richardson College junior and psychology major on the pre-med track, the trip spoke to the power of firsthand experiences. “You can study a place. You can research it. You can even look at an infinite number of maps and Google Earth views of a place, but until you immerse yourself in the location, you don’t really get a full grasp of how it is to live there. It’s different,” she said.

“Being able to walk next to thousands of years of history as I go to a local coffee shop is not something I can do in America,” McElroy said. “Looking at the locals casually stroll the streets or sell goods next to a major holy site, it’s like, ‘Do you even know what you’re standing next to?!’ Of course, they do. My stay in Jerusalem has allowed me to not only see how the residents live out the history of Jerusalem today, but it has allowed me to remove my mental image of Jerusalem as dirt roads and an abandoned desert town to a modern and historical city full of life, culture and delicious food.”

Jeremy Reiskind, a Duncan College junior double-majoring in sport management and history and minoring in Jewish studies, has been to Israel multiple times. A Jew, Reiskind chose the Muslim Quarter for his presentation because he wanted to explore a place he had never been to before or knew anything about. “In my presentation, I looked at the Crusader Church of Saint Anne, which is believed to be the birthplace of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, and the Lions Gate that enters into the Muslim Quarter as well as the current social situation in the quarter, especially between Muslims and Jews who are buying houses there.”

Reiskind said being in Jerusalem allowed him to see how closely the three main religions interact and how this small city, especially the Old City, is so important to them. “Even with all the conflict that surrounds Israel and the city, it is pretty incredible that these three religions are able to share arguably the holiest city in the world,” he said. “I truly saw how the conflict affects those experiencing it every day. We heard from so many speakers across the political spectrum on their views on the conflict, and it’s crazy how there are so many different views on what should be done.”

The group hears a presentation on top of Masada, a rock plateau used as a fortress by Herod the Great. The Dead Sea is in the background.

Eric Brighton, a Baker College junior and computer and electrical engineering major, was surprised by the ease with which the group was able to travel across the city. “Because of all the media coverage and American perception, I expected to feel uneasy or insecure in some of the places we visited,” he said. “As it turned out, I found myself completely at ease and felt very safe and secure everywhere we went. I now find it unfortunate that there is so much talk of the conflict and security concerns and so little mention of all of the life and vibrancy that exists on a day-to-day basis.”

Brighton gave a presentation on the ancient City of David, one of the most intensively excavated sites in the wider region. “I found this site fascinating because it contains the oldest remnants of settlement in the area and is really the foundation for why the city ever came into being in the first place” he said. “I came to find that the site in present day is a source of conflict between its residents and those who want access to the area to excavate. It plays an important role in the tensions between settlement groups and East Jerusalem residents.”

The group returned to Houston March 8 after a final day in Jerusalem that, combined with subsequent air travel, “never really ended,” Henze said. “After a full week of traveling, exhaustion finally set in. It quickly became a sport to photograph each other sleeping.”

To read a blog by Henze and Weininger about the course’s travel and experiences in Jerusalem, go to http://reli392.blogs.rice.edu.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.