Salaam and Shalom from the Holy Land!! (That's hello in Arabic and Hebrew!) So just a heads up, I am the new pen pal for my sister's First and Second grade class, so at least once a week I will be writing specifically to them. Unfortunately because I've been so busy here and the internet is really slow, I've had a hard time getting on this week to write. So I think I'm going to make Erika use her teaching skills and just some up this post with what she wants to tell her class. Love you Erika! :) And yes, this may have something to do with all of those pictures you just posted of me on your blog...haha :P
The Jerusalem Center is absolutely beautiful! It is definitely one of the most beautiful buildings I've ever been in. It sits on the western slope in the middle of the Mount of Olives, which some Israelis call Mt. Scopus (it's all political, like everything else here). There are 8 levels in the center, and 149 stairs on the inside (with a lot more on the outside!). I live on level 3 in a room with 3 other girls. The four of us share a bathroom, so I don't have to wait in line like in the dorms! Our room has its own patio outside that overlooks East Jerusalem (the Palestinian sector) and the Old City that sit to the west of our center. It is a beautiful view and one of my favorite places to sit and watch the sun go down. The Garden of Gethsemane is just south of us at the base of the Mt. of Olives, as well as the Orson Hyde park. North of us lies Hebrew University and some new Jewish neighborhoods that are encroaching into the Palestinian neighborhoods (much to the uproar of everyone around). (Erika-I know you've been talking about neighborhoods and communities in class, but I don't know if it's too hard to explain how they are divided up by what ethnicity and religion the people are...)
It is about half-way through Ramadan-the Muslim holy month of fasting (lunar months). The Muslims wake up really early (about 4am) to eat a big breakfast and then they fast all day long until the sun goes completely down (about 7:30pm). Each morning when it is time to begin their fast, a big canon goes off (of course I wake up! It's practically right outside my window! haha). The canon will go off again in the evening when they are allowed to eat again. They have big parties every night where they eat lots of food and have music and fireworks. The streets in the Arab neighborhoods are decorated with Christmas lights in celebration of the Holy Month. At the end of the month, they will all exchange gifts with each other. So it is a combination of Christmas, the Fourth of July, and Fast Sunday in our culture. They certainly make it look fun! And of course there is the Muslim Call to Prayer that goes off from all of the Mosques in the city 5 times a day, starting at 4:30am. Normally it is only about 10 minutes long, but because it is the Holy Month they have been playing sermons before and after the call to prayer, so in total about 45 min of Arabic is sung and chanted every morning from the loudspeakers just across the way from us... I'm just used to getting up with it now. But it really is beautiful!
The Old City of Jerusalem is divided into 4 sections, or quarters: Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Armenian. There are 7 gates into the city through the walls (built by Sultan Suleyman in the 1500s). I haven't even been here a week yet and I've already made it into the Old City 3 times. Thursday our professors took us on a walking tour of the city just to show us around and get us oriented. Friday I spent the afternoon in the city and we wandered around the Christian, Armenian, and Jewish Quarters. As we were on our way out of the city, we randomly stumbled upon the Western Wall as the devout (mostly Orthodox) Jews were coming to welcome in the Sabbath--which is Saturday for them, and also for us here at the Center. We didn't get to stop because we still had a long walk ahead of us to get back to the center before the sun went down. But we will be going on a field trip for this very purpose this coming Friday evening, so I'm excited about that! Sunday we had a completely free day, so I went to the Old City with my roommates. We attended a Lutheran service at the Church of the Redeemer in the Christian Quarter. Then we just explored... or got lost... haha. We did visit the courtyard of the Church of the Redeemer. It is one of the favorite places of the 12 Apostles to come when they are in Jerusalem. And some of them have filmed their testimonies here. It is absolutely beautiful! And very peaceful in the middle of a very loud and bustling city. We ate our lunch here and then had some photo shoots. Overall, we are still finding our way around the city, but hopefully we will be pros in no time!
Saturday was our Sabbath here. I think it has been my favorite day so far, actually. We hold Sacrament in the Auditorium of the Center, which faces a wall of windows that overlooks Jerusalem. A little distracting maybe, but such a wonderful experience. We all sound phenomenal when we sing together, too. Church was beautiful. Sunday School was awesome, and Relief Society was special, too. I don't know how to articulate how powerful the Spirit was in our meetings, but it was such a neat experience... like being back in Nauvoo again. :) Our Relief Society President is Palestinian and she lives in Bethlehem, which is actually located in the West Bank. For years she has not been allowed to come to Church because it is held here in Jerusalem. Luckily she got a job working for the UN and now has a pass that allows her to come to Jerusalem during certain times of the day. She is fantastic and I know I have so much to learn from her!
Today we took our first field trip to study the geography of the Holy Land. We went to several different high points around Jerusalem. We stayed within a 15 mile radius of the city, but we saw so much! I never realized from reading the scriptures just how close everything is! Bethlehem is only 6 miles from Jerusalem. Bethany is on the mount just south of the Mt. of Olives. We went as far north as Nabi Samwil, the burial place of the Prophet Samuel. I see archaeology every where I go, and I'm hoping to somehow get involved with some type of current project while I'm here, or at least make some contacts. But I also have a lot of classes and LOTS of homework... so we'll just have to see how that goes.
I know this was all pretty scattered, but it is hard to find the words to articulate how beautiful this place is, and also how much we need to pray for the people here. Many Israelis and Palestinians get along just fine with each other, just like any neighbors. However, there are those who try to incite reactions, which is never a smart idea. It isn't a matter or who is right and who is wrong any more, though that is still what many fight over. Now, the conflict is really about what is fair and how to compromise, but some aren't interested in compromise, and those in power don't really care about what is fair. But I can say that all of the people here worship God, just like we do. They try their best, they raise their children, and they live their lives just as we do. They attend church with their families on their Sabbath Days, whether it is Friday, Saturday or Sunday. And we are all children of Abraham, and have inherited the opportunity to make those same covenants and receive the same blessings as he did. The Church is still true, and the Gospel is perfect in the knowledge of truth it gives us. And these people are just as good and worthy of our respect as any of God's Children.