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From the Judean desert to Tel Aviv, Stanford students discover Israel


Left to right: Stanford undergrads Oswaldo Hasbun, Andrea Acosta, and Johannah Brady
Photo Credit: 
Sarah Jiang

In the first study abroad trip to Israel in twenty-five years, Stanford students travelled to various sacred sites learning how religion influences culture and politics

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Elizabeth Sigalla (left) and Mikhail Grant point at a mosque in the distance. The Dome of the Rock is illuminated in green in the distance. Photo credit: Sarah Jiang.

Stanford students Sizi Chen and Oswaldo Hasbun speak with Colonel Danny Tierza, formerly of the Israeli Defense Forces, about the wall constructed by Israel separating Israel from the West Bank. Photo credit: Sarah Jiang.

Stanford undergrads in Haifa, in front of the Bahai gardens and shrine. Left to right: Vince Sparacio, Alexandra Santiago, Sarah Jiang, Alberto Hernandez, Sizi Chen, Andrea Acosta, Johannah Brady. Photo credit : Sarah Jiang.

“On Sabbath evening, the entire city of Jerusalem comes to a halt,” recalls Stanford student Aditya Todi, who spent three weeks in Israel this past summer.

Todi, a senior majoring in International Relations, was among the fifteen Stanford undergraduates who toured various sacred places throughout Israel as part of the Bing Overseas Studies Program seminar “Exploring Sacred Space in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,” led by Religious Studies Professor Steven Weitzman.

Thinking back on the visit to the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s most sacred sites, Todi says that seeing people pray, sing, and dance together at a site that embodies so much political and religious significance was something he will never forget.

“I touched rocks that are thousands of years old and said a brief prayer. Something about that moment has stayed with me,” Todi affirms.

The type of impression that the visit to the Western Wall left on Todi is exactly what Weitzman hoped for.

A scholar of Jewish antiquity, Weitzman says he often encounters strong resistance from undergraduates when it comes to the study of religion.

“Many students are indifferent to religion, dismiss it as nonsense, or feel threatened by the idea of studying it,” Weitzman says.

In an effort to convince students that having an understanding of religion can help them better understand the world around them, Weitzman advocated for and organized this summer’s seminar, the first Stanford study abroad trip to Israel in twenty-five years.

Sarah Jiang, a Stanford sophomore majoring in history with a minor in human biology, first heard Professor Weitzman lecture on the Genesis story as part of a Structured Liberal Education (SLE) class. She says that when she found out that Weitzman would be leading the Israel seminar, she “she couldn’t pass up the chance to travel to Israel and learn about this complex land from Israeli, Palestinian, Christian, Muslim, secular, and political perspectives.”

The seminar was centered on the creation and evolution of sacred places, but Weitzman wanted students to also get an understanding of Israel’s singular role in contemporary political life and international conflict.

For over two decades, Stanford students have been unable to travel to Israel due to a State Department Travel Warning. However, Weitzman secured a one-time exception making this year’s trip possible. “It proved to be one of my most rewarding experiences as a teacher,” Weitzman says.

A place overflowing with significance

Despite the difficulties in getting the seminar approved, Weitzman maintains that this trip was his “best attempt at convincing students that religion is worth studying,” as Israel offers a unique wealth of lessons.

“Israel is a place overflowing with significance, and there are many reasons to study there--to get a better understanding of the Middle East, to explore the history of the world's three great monotheistic faiths, to engage the challenges of conflict resolution,” Weitzman explains.

The seminar was designed to explore the creation and the role of sacred spaces in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the world’s three great monotheistic religions.

The group started their trip in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital and a city venerated by Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike, where they visited the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Garden Tomb. The time in Jerusalem also included excursions to the Judean desert and the Dead Sea.

Students met a newly elected parliament member, toured the security wall dividing Jerusalem with the military commander who designed it, and spoke with Palestinians and Muslims about the challenges they encounter living in Jerusalem or Israel. 

During a visit to Haifa University, the group attended a lecture by Israel Waismel-Manor, an expert in Israeli elections, on comparing the Israeli and American political systems. Waismel-Manor will be at Stanford for the 2013-2014 academic year as a Visiting Associate Professor offering courses on elections and Israeli politics cross-listed in the Political Science department and Jewish Studies.

Following their stay in Jerusalem, the group continued on to northern Israel, where they stopped in Galilee, considered the birthplace of Christianity, and the city of Haifa, which was among the most besieged cities during the Crusades. While in the North, the group visited a Crusades-era castle and stayed at a kibbutz – a traditional Israeli collective community.

This experience was another standout memory for Todi, who remarks that the kibbutz is “a symbol of the tension between the old Israel and the new.”

Todi says that learning how many kibbutzim have closed in recent years, or how some are turning part of their facilities into tourist lodgings, is an example of how quickly society is changing in Israel.

The group ended their trip in Tel Aviv, the largest city in Israel and the backdrop for discussions about the modern state of Israel, globalization, immigration, and secularism.

A new perspective on an old world

Like Weitzman, Waismel-Manor also strongly advocates study abroad programs, arguing that “any trip which takes students outside the country and provides them with a different perspective is a blessing. Many Stanford graduates will go on to leadership positions in the private sector and in governments. For them to succeed, it is imperative to familiarize them with the world out there,” he says. 

Indeed, Todi reflects that traveling can help us break many of the false preconceptions created by either ignorance or misinformation.

“Many believe Israel to be extremely unsafe with people fighting on the borders and on the streets while rockets and bombs are flying all around,” he says. However, he points out that this was not the case.

“There was the night we were out watching a rock concert at Sultans Pool at 1am. I remember the neighborhood of Abu Ghosh, which is known not only for its excellent hummus, but also for being the symbol of tolerance amongst the Jews and Muslims. I am reminded of the city of Haifa, where people from all different faiths live together,” Todi recalls.


Veronica Marian is the Communications Coordinator at the Stanford Humanities Center.

Media Contact: Corrie Goldman, Director of Humanities Communication:  (650) 724-8156,