It's all academic

The Jerusalem Post/January 23, 2007
By Shelly Paz

Six years after Brigham Young University closed its Jerusalem campus, 44 Mormon students from Salt Lake City, Utah, arrived a week and a half ago for a semester in the Israeli capital.

Excited but protected and guided by their religion's strict set of rules, they expect a productive semester.

Jonathan Collins, a 23-year-old engineering student, says that coming to Jerusalem is a dream come true.

"As a Christian, Jerusalem and the Holy Land are special places," he says. "This is where Jesus was born and lived. The opportunity for me to come here and to actually be in these places and feel the spirit is a wonderful experience to deepen my faith and to strengthen my testimony of Jesus."

Like Collins, the rest of the students feel "blessed" to finally be in the Holy Land. Perhaps the location of the university has something to do with it.

The Mormon University in Jerusalem is located on the slope of Mount Scopus, near the Hebrew University, symbolically overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, where sites of great importance to Christianity, Judaism and Islam stand.

The construction of the impressive building was completed in 1987 and was completely financed by the Mormon community in Utah, which has been sending Mormon students to Israel since 1968.

The university's facilities can house up to 173 students. However, for the first semester back the management decided to start more slowly with a small number of students, all of whom were carefully chosen.

"We have decided to go back to business gradually since there was no academic activity in the building for six years - that includes the kitchen, the dormitories and classrooms," says Eran Hayet, the university's executive director. He adds that the community had to choose responsible and mature students to reduce the risk of "things getting out of control" in case of political unrest in the country.

"We don't want the students to be closed in a glass cage," he explains. "We want them to go out and feel the atmosphere of this place. We didn't want anyone hurt then and we don't want it now."

Nevertheless, the students perfectly understand the necessary precautions.

"We feel safe but we realized that there are risks involved," says Steven Chalk, a 22-year-old business student. "They gave us all cellular phones so that we will be in touch with them and they with us, and they taught us where to go and how to act, what's proper and what isn't, so we stay safe in that way. We are guests in a different country and we don't want to be insensitive."

Israeli and Palestinian professors teach the students courses that deal with subjects such as Judaism, Islam, Hebrew and Arabic. However, courses in the Mormon religion and topics related to Christianity are taught by visiting Mormon American professors. The students have to take courses in Israeli and Arab history, and once a week they volunteer in local Israeli and Arab institutions. Throughout the year, they visit sacred religious places in the country and in Jordan and Egypt.

Not many people are aware of the lifestyle of the Mormons and their 12 million followers, most of whom live in the United States and Canada, but also in South America, Asia and Africa.

The Mormon church, also known as "the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," is based on a movement - some would even say a cult - that was established in 1830 in New York by Joseph Smith Jr. and five of his friends.

The movement has had its share of persecutions - Joseph Smith Jr. was murdered by a furious mob in Illinois, and after Mormon followers were expelled from Missouri, the community established the center of their religion in Utah, where most American Mormons live today.

The movement calls for searching and renewing Christianity's original ways. Its main customs include being an active missionary, faith in modern prophets like Smith Jr. and accepting the Bible, the New Testament and the Mormon Book as Holy Scriptures.

In addition, followers must accept upon themselves a strict diet and are supposed to wear a sanctity garment beneath their daily outfit.

The Mormon movement made headlines when the Simon Wiesenthal Center revealed that Mormon followers had baptized themselves in the name of Holocaust victims without their families' consent. Mormons explained that the Baptism did not mean that the dead were converted but that they had the opportunity for remission of their sins.

In addition, haredi factions opposed the opening of the Mormon University in Jerusalem in the Eighties because they feared missionary activities in Israel. Back then, Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, who passed away two weeks ago, helped the two communities reach a compromise in which the Mormons had to sign an agreement promising not to engage in any missionary activities.

Five days after the students arrived in Jerusalem, they all seemed happy to be here - and why should they feel any differently starting their semester in an attractive building with fine pipe organ music playing in the background and healthy food at their disposal?

As part of their strict diet, Mormons don't drink coffee or tea, and alcohol and tobacco are forbidden. But these young adults don't seem to be bothered much by these prohibitions.

"I actually enjoy it. I feel like it gives me structure and protection," says Sara McConkie, a beautiful 21-year-old history student.

"It actually helps you live a good life. It keeps you away from addictions," adds Chalk.

"Any strict moral code in any religion helps you concentrate and gives you more freedom to deal with important things," summarizes Cambria Jones, 24, a nursing student. "They don't have to make these decisions everyday, they know what they are going to do and they can focus on different things."

McConkie gently refuses to say why she thinks the Mormon movement draws so much attention.

"I don't know," she answers. "Maybe people just don't know much about it. Our church leaders and each of us had to sign an agreement with the Israeli government before we came here, stating that we would not talk about our religion. I can tell you that one of our beliefs is to keep our promises."

All the young students wish the area peace but insist on staying politically impartial regarding the conflict.

"As students and as a church, we are politically neutral and we are just here to learn," says Charity Eyre, 20, a sociology student.

"We should remember that we [Muslims, Christians and Jews] all worship God so we should all remember that we are brothers and sisters and be able to share this land," adds Jones.

Before leaving for their Judaism class, Collins summarizes the general feeling of the students simply: "The Holy Land rocks!"

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