Wheaton Students Embark on New Jerusalem Study Abroad Program

By Phoebe Shin For the first time, students from various majors are studying and living for an entire semester in the Holy Land.

"The semester in Jerusalem (SiJ) group on the Southern Steps, where Peter preached the Pentecost message (and some think where the spirit fell on believers)." Credit: Avyi Hill.

Wheaton’s inaugural Semester in Jerusalem (SIJ) kicked off this fall with 18 students and two faculty members taking part in the 24-week study abroad program.


“The best part has been living in Jerusalem long enough for it to feel like home,” said Ian Davison, a junior BITH and classical languages major. “When I came on my two-week trip in high school several years ago, sights and information came at a speed too quick to soak it all in, but living and studying in Israel over the course of a semester has allowed me to explore the country region by region with Jerusalem always being our home base.”


The SIJ program expands upon the Wheaton in the Holy Lands summer program, in which students spend three weeks in Israel and three weeks in Rome and Greece. The program costs are equal to the average semester costs of a full-time Wheaton student studying on campus plus the airfare costs to and from Jerusalem and any passport and visa costs.


Chris Vlachos is a Wheaton professor currently in Jerusalem with the students, while staff member Darby Stevens serves as the Jerusalem program assistant. Vlachos, an associate visiting lecturer in the biblical and theological studies department and the director of the Semester in Jerusalem program, said that the length of the program allows for a deeper experience.

"A view of the Qilt Valley. This is what the Israelites first would have seen entering the holy land." Credit: Avyi Hill.
"Jaffa Gate in the Old City, about a five minute walk from campus." Credit: Avyi Hill.

“One of the main differences is that rather than being in Israel for three weeks, the students are living here,” Vlachos said. “They’re shopping, they’re meeting people, they’re eating here for a semester as opposed to just passing through for three weeks, so they get much more cultural immersion.”


Through the leadership of Wheaton faculty members and the cross-cultural experiences facilitated by Jerusalem University College (JUC), students explore biblical narratives in locations such as Galilee, the Negev Desert and Greece. By taking classes related to history, political science, geography, and theology, students are exposed to diverse perspectives while studying alongside other JUC students and learning from American, international and Israeli professors. 


The opportunity to explore the Holy Lands while studying biblical settings in context has allowed students to learn about the origins of Christianity in profound ways. 


“It has been totally transforming, like the Bible has come alive,” said Evelyn Townsend, a junior BITH and music major. “All the narratives in the Old Testament and the history books where it lists places and battles and references different parts of the land—all of it makes so much more sense after studying these sites. It’s like reading in color.”

"Modesty is an important point of cultural sensitivity here. How you dress represents not only your personal values (typical dress in the US is viewed by natives here as promiscuous) but also the social/religious group you come from. This sign at Dominus Flevit captures the typical attitude well." Credit: Avyi Hill.
"We slept outside for the holiday of Sukkot, the feast of booths, which commemorates the Lord's provision for the Israelites in the desert." Credit: Avyi Hill.

Avyi Hill, a junior applied math and BITH major, agrees. “The land is so integral to who Israelis are and how they express things,” she said. “Just being able to walk in Bible characters’ steps really brings stuff to life too. I was talking to one of the administrators here and she said, ‘Reading the Bible without understanding the physical context is like seeing a play without any of the set.’ Obviously, the point still gets across, but you lose so much depth.”


The classes students take while living in Jerusalem relate to a variety of disciplines such as history, theology, anthropology, political science, geography, archaeology, international relations, literature and art. 

Specific classes that students are required to take at Jerusalem University College include Physical Setting of the Bible and Introduction to the Modern Middle East. Students earn a total of 16 credit hours and are able to take two elective and four required courses out of 12 offered courses. Options for electives include Iconographic Art in Judaism and Early Christianity or Palestinian Society and Politics.

A few of the optional elective courses, such as History of the Church in the East, introduce students to the history and beliefs of the Greek Eastern Orthodox Church. Approximately 30% of Christians in Israel belong to this Church, which maintains the Holy Land as one of its nine patriarchates under the supervision of three resident patriarchs. The Church is one of three Christian branches, alongside the Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, that shares control of the 1,695-year-old Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City. 

"Christian Quarter Street. Lots of little alleys and streets like this in the Old City that take a while to learn to navigate." Credit: Avyi Hill.

As of 2016, the population of Jerusalem was 60% Jewish, 35% Muslim, and around 2% Christian.The main Christian denominations in the city include the Melkite Greek Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant.


“The greatest thing about the SIJ program,” Vlachos said, “is that you not only study the narrative—ancient and modern—you become a part of the narrative.”


The new semester-length program ends with a two-week trip to Greece following the missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul. Though the program was meant to debut in the fall of 2020, COVID-related travel restrictions delayed it until this semester. Wheaton in Jerusalem will be offered in the fall of 2021 upon sufficient enrollment.

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