I love Israel!! Classes started yesterday, and they are pretty intense, but really interesting. We are currently taking Old Testament, Ancient Near East Studies, Modern Near East Studies (one section on Judaism/Israel and a second section on Islam/Palestine), and a choice between Arabic and Hebrew. I'm taking Arabic. All of my teachers are so great and interesting. My Old Testament teacher is from BYU Provo; his name is Eric Hunstman. He is extremely accomplished- published books, member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, professor... he's truly legit. Look him up. Plus, he's a really engaging professor, which is refreshing because I've had other very accomplished professors who were not engaging at all. Our Judaism professor is a Jewish man that was born in the US, but has lived in Israel for the past 30 years or so. He has taught at the center for a while, and he also is an important figure on an international board for religious cooperation between Muslims, Jews, and Christians. We just dove into the material today and he shared some really interesting things about what Judaism is really is (apparently, you can't really define it as one thing... it's a bunch of things) and when it essentially began. It was quite fascinating. Our Islam class was equally interesting- we only had an hour though so we didn't get into the material, just talked about the class procedure, etc. Our professor is younger, but is already very accomplished. He got his bachelors, then went on to the London School of Economics for graduate work. He is technically a political analyst and researcher, but he is really passionate about the subjects of Islam and Palestine (plus the Center has really allowed him to teach whatever he wants), so he's teaching! He is from northern Israel, near Galilee, but it's essentially a Palestinian town. He wouldn't tell us his religion or anything so that we wouldn't have a bias for or against him, which I can appreciate. I really liked him though because you could tell he loves to teach, and just for the simple reason of sharing knowledge and appreciation for new things with students. He talked a lot about how he wants the class to be about gaining knowledge for the simple purpose of expanding horizons and learning decency, rather than gaining knowledge in order to dominate something or someone. I haven't started my Arabic class yet (that will be tomorrow), but I'm really really excited for it. i can't wait to start trying haha but I'm sure it will plenty difficult. Last but not least, Ancient Near East is basically an intense history class of the ancient civilizations of the middle/near east. It shouldn't be too bad for me since I've studied a lot of them through World History and Art History in High School, not to mention in Humanities this past year at BYU.
I'm excited for all of my classes, but it will be hard to balance all the reading and studying with going out into the city and socializing! I already experienced this today... Hebrew started today for half the kids, but the rest of us had about a 4 hour break in the afternoon to do as we pleased. I had kind of been thinking that I would just stay in and do reading or something, but then at lunch I had been talking with people who were going to go out. One of them wanted to go to the Pools of Bethesda, and I had just been thinking yesterday that I wanted to go do that. So, I decided to be social and join the group and add some of my own friends :) I know it sounds kind of silly, but before leaving on the trip, I had been extremely nervous about making friends and being included in the group on this trip. I was worried that I would just be a homebody and not go out as much as I should and be shy and stuff. So, I've been trying really hard to include myself in things and talk to everyone! I think it's going well haha at least I hope it is! No one wants to be that one person that always tags along... that's the worst. But as I've looked around the group, everyone is so awesome! I really never see people being left out, and everyone is so friendly to each other. That is something I am really thankful for. Anyways. The Pools of Bethesda. These are some water cisterns/pools (now empty) that are mentioned in the Bible. There is some controversy over exactly what they were used for, but it is generally accepted that the pools are associated with healing. Now, there is only a little bit of water in some of the deep, underground parts; otherwise it's mostly a lot of ruins of old stone basilicas and temples. I'm a sucker for broken columns and rough stone, so I loved it. It was one of the most peaceful places that I've been to in the city. It is right inside the Lion's Gate of the Old City, and it has some beautiful gardens, the ruins, and an amazing church. The church is very well-known for its acoustics, and let me tell you, it is amazing. I honestly don't think I have heard anything like it before, and I've been in a lot of churches. The beautiful vaulted ceilings just echo sounds forever, and the columns are specially placed so as to not trap the sound. Our group really wanted to sing inside, which a lot of groups actually do. As we were gathering and taking pictures and sitting down, another tour group from the US came in. Later we found out that the focus of the group is healing through Christ. They started singing and it was so powerful. I didn't recognize the first song they sang, but it just had so much feeling and power behind it; they were truly singing with all of their hearts. Then (I guess it was previously arranged), one of the women got up and stood in the center on the perfect acoustic spot, and sang a solo. It was so beautiful. The echoes were incredible, and it made it sound like her song and prayer were truly being raised up to heaven. She had such a beautiful, clear voice, and she had so much raw and honest emotion. Nothing over the top, but just right. Other people in her group adding some harmonized humming, and with echo, it sounded like angels singing. I'm just constantly in awe of the power of music to touch people's hearts, and how it can connect people of any faith or sect of Christianity. Some of the words really touched my heart. I don't remember them exactly, but they had something to the effect of, "If there is anytime that I come to thee, Lord, it is now." It just reminded me that all of us are really here in the Holy Land to come to know our Savior Jesus Christ better. We are here where He lived, taught, performed miracles, died, and was resurrected. If there is anytime for me to come closer to my Lord, it really is now. Afterwards, we all sang "Amazing Grace" together. This has always been one of my very favorite religious songs. I just love the words to it and the recognition in it of how small we are ourselves, but how great we can be through His help and grace and love. They left after that, but it was an incredible experience to join in songs of praise with them in this beautiful church, at this place of healing. After they left, our group went on to sing "How Great Thou Art," another of my favorites! After such an amazing experience, it fit well that we were sing about our awe and gratitude for God and Jesus Christ. My favorite part is the last verse when it talks about Christ's return and our individual awe, and how we'll kneel and say "My God, how great thou art." I am so thankful to be here in this place with so much history, both secular and religious. I cannot imagine a better time to grow closer to my Lord and continue to marvel in His love and grace for me, and all of us.