As we approach the 10-year reunion of my study abroad and amazing 4-month pilgrimage to Jerusalem, I have been thinking about all the lessons I learned from my experience there. The older I get, the more I realized how much I take for granted this deeply moving opportunity — both while I was experiencing it and afterward. For those who are soon to attend this study abroad (or know of someone who is), I wanted to write down the things I wish I knew before going so you can be educated, have a few tricks up your sleeve, and be fully present while you are there.

*I know currently the program is at a stand-still due to the pandemic and other events happening world-wide, but this blog post will live forever at this URL so reference it when you need!*

You will gain invaluable insight and knowledge while in the Holy Land. You’ll learn about issues, meet all kinds of different people, and see different perspectives that will broaden your view and help you understand where people are coming from.

“This is Jerusalem! You’re in the Old City—the Holy City. Slow down until you can feel it. And then take the pictures.”

#1: Find “your spot” the first week there

Whether you are reading your scriptures, doing homework, writing in your journal, or praying to God, find a secluded place to be alone in your own thoughts. You don’t need to be involved in every fun activity that goes on during the days inside the Jerusalem Center. Well, you most definitely can, but make sure to find a time each week or even each day to process your thoughts alone. My favorite spot? Climb the stairs near the outside eating area and you’ll find a little balcony with archs and a stunning view of the Old City. It was always empty and you can sit perfectly on the ledge under one of the arches and hold your scriptures or homework in hand.

#2: Keep a written journal and a small notebook of devotionals

I kept a journal and wrote in it as often as I could. I love going back through it and reading what I had to say, especially now that I can’t remember exactly what we did. My only suggestion is to write your thoughts and emotions in addition to the details of what you did that day.

One thing I am so glad I did was I brought a small pocket-sized notebook to every devotional we had on our field trips. I absolutely love looking through that book and remembering the amazing things my professors taught me each week.

#3: Don’t be on social media

I went in 2012 and I didn’t know what Instagram was. I am so so grateful I didn’t because I know if I had social media when I was there, I would be very distracted getting just the right photo, finding the best filter, and writing a post. I get it, the photos you will get are amazing and you want to share them with your friends and family. If you want to keep in touch with family and friends, write emails! Make a free blog site, or if you really want to, just post once a week. Really though: like delete Instagram off your phone for the entire week and then redownload it on a certain day to post. Please please please take this time to step away from the outside world and make a bubble around yourself and the Holy Land.

#4: Find ways to document things for your future self and future children

I know, this one is probably weird to think about or do, since all students are single and young. But remember that this is going to be a huge spiritual growing point in your life (or at least I hope it is!) and you will want to share your experiences with your future spouse and children someday. Here are a few projects I have done since coming home:

Photography Coffee Table Book

Towards the end of your study abroad, people will be transferring photos to each other. I gathered all my favorite photography photos with little to no students in them. I created a large 13×11 inch book with all of these photos and a small caption of the place. It is the perfect coffee table book I love to periodically peruse through, and always a favorite for family members, friends, or strangers to look through as well.

Bible Location Book

After I came back, I started gathering up the images, the dates, and the scriptures of the places I had visited that are mentioned in the Old and New Testament and started writing little blurbs about each place. I wrote about the biblical event of that location and my testimony of it, writing with my future children in mind. I am so glad I did this early on when memories were still fresh! I had fun designing the book so that one side is Old Testament, and you flip it over to the backside to see the New Testament (I had to get it reprinted 3 times before they finally got it right on the binding!).

Bethlehem Baby Blessing Blanket

I bought a baby blanket while in Bethlehem so I could use it to bless my babies in when they were born. I was thinking of buying multiple since I thought having one for each child would be nice but I didn’t know how many I would have and so I stuck to one. I recently embroidered my two children’s names on the corner of the date they were blessed and it is something I deeply treasure.

Dress Ups

I did buy a few items that would work well for dress-ups. I don’t think this was necessary at all. They aren’t anything authentic from what I can tell. But as you can see, I enjoy shopping for future children I didn’t even have but I love having these items in our dress-up bin and can’t wait until they start having fun with them soon!

Water & Dirt in Jars

I was that person who took my empty water bottle (you’ll drink lots of them each field trip) and filled it with sand or water from a certain location. I ended up with bottles from the Dead Sea, the Red Sea, Jordan River, Gethsemane, mustard seeds, and Galilee. The airport security actually opened my bag and was curious about them but I came up with some excuse about it, so incredibly nervous they would take them away, but they didn’t. Once I got home I found some great bottles for them and 10 years later they are finally sitting in the prime spot on our bookshelf.

Bible Pictures

After we traveled to Ephesus and I noticed exactly the spot to take a photo where you get the angle of the image in the back of the Bible, I wanted to try and replicate as many Bible photos as I could. I got a good amount, and then printed and taped them to each spot in my Bible. Just a fun way for my kids to see these places are real locations because their mom is standing right there!

Use your talents and make something unique for yourself, to share with your family and friends, and for your posterity. Make a video, write a story, sing a song, build a memory box, print a book. There are so many ways you can document in your own unique way!

#5: Intentionally get out of your comfort zone

This is the perfect age, the perfect time, the perfect place to push yourself out of your comfort zone and try new things. If you aren’t adventurous with food, just try it! Eat the Galilee fish eye, why not? Don’t feel like you have a talent? Sign up for the student talent show anyways (I rapped with friends in one, and if you know me I do not rap!). The group around you will be so full of love and grace, and there is something in the air that just makes you naturally feel more comfortable and exhilarated about life! So take this trip and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a bit more adventurous and try new things you wouldn’t otherwise. I know you won’t regret it.

Similarly, try not to take the shortcuts just because of ease. Walk the extra mile and get the shawarma in the Jewish Quarter instead of the one closest to the Center, the Muslim Quarter. Take the time and make it a thing to go to areas that take a bit more effort to get to. You will be walking a LOT so just get used to it and enjoy it!

#6: Take advantage of all your Free Days

Throughout the semester, you receive a handful of free days. Obviously, you are taking classes so there is time to prepare for tests and write essays. But try to take advantage of as many free days as you can. A group of my friends and I spent a free day getting a cab to Ein Kerem and walked to the Church of the Visitation that commemorates when Mary left into the hill country to visit her cousin Elizabeth. It was a beautiful church and I am so glad we took the time to get a cab and spend a half-day there. We were lost half the time and ended up chatting with a nice woman for a short bit.

What I’m trying to say is spend some time researching places around the area you would like to see and use your free days to encourage your friends to come with you. A friend of mine recommended taking a guidebook (like this one) with you to help you come up with ideas and to read more information about a location you visit to give you more background of that area. Going back to #5, take that initiative and go out and explore the city! Another fun free day suggestion is the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo! Go check out random little churches, they are a dime a dozen but each are so unique and beautiful and worth taking a look at.

This feels like the right spot to share my Google My Maps of locations in Jerusalem! Someone shared this with me and it holds the locations of some places you could never find in a search — like Shaban’s place, Jimmy and Omar’s, the “Amazing Pastry Shop” and more! Feel free to tell me any that I should add to the list so we can make this an extensive map of all the best places!

#7: Make an effort to get to know a person or family living near the Center

I don’t know how strict the rules are currently, but a few friends in my study abroad group were invited to eat dinner with a Palestinian family. Another group became friends with some young kids and played soccer and flew kites with them outside the bottom Center gate. I didn’t personally make any relationships, especially since I took the Hebrew class instead of the Arabic, but what a great way to get to know people who live on the other side of the world from your home and learn something from them. One person I did get to eat dinner with was a nice Roman Catholic priest who made us food after we helped him with his garden in front of the Dominus Flevit Church.

In a similar note, take time to get to know the staff members. The cooks, the bus drivers, the security. You spend a lot of time with them and get to know them a little bit, but I wish I would have talked to them more one-on-one and broadened my relationships with not just the fellow students.

#8: Volunteer whenever you can

There are certain opportunities to volunteer throughout your time there. I was so grateful I volunteered to help paint a mural at a children’s school in the Palestinian neighborhood as well as volunteer to help out at a kid’s summer camp for an afternoon. One of my favorite dinners of the entire study abroad was the one I mentioned in #7, after our group of volunteers helped the man clean out his garden. Volunteer work is such a great way to really dive into the community and culture of the area.

#9: Hang Out with the Teacher’s Families

I was in the group that was the last of the 3 semesters the professors and their family were at the Jerusalem Center. This was probably helpful for the families with younger kids because they were used to being around college-age people and were comfortable around the area. We went over to different family’s homes to eat dinner, watch movies, play Just Dance. I had a blast hanging out with the teacher’s wives and their kids on field trips when they came. Now that it’s been 10 years later, I thoroughly have enjoyed seeing them grow up on social media, getting married, and starting their own lives.

#10: Don’t be too frugal with your souvenior shopping

This one is tricky because not everyone has the extra money to buy a bunch of souvenirs. I was lucky enough to have my parents pay for my trip and expenses. I bought a couple of things for myself and some gifts to take home for others. Every time I pull out my olive tree nativity it makes my heart smile. Omar’s has the better quality olive wood and there are some pretty spectacular pieces he has created specifically to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His shop will definitely be the place I stop at when I go back to visit with my family.

#11: Join the church choir

Not a singer? Don’t care, still join! The songs you will learn as a participant in the choir will stick with you forever and become your most favorite songs of all time. You will feel the Spirit like no other, or at least I do through song. We sang a number of songs during church as a choir and there was never a time we sang that almost all of us were in tears.

#12: Wake up early and go outside (especially while in Galilee)

One of my favorite memories of the entire study abroad was waking up extra early one morning while on our week-long trip to Galilee, and reading my scriptures. I pulled out a plastic chair onto the lawn, still wet with dew, and faced it towards the Sea of Galilee. The fog was holding onto its last breath, and I sat reading the story of Jesus walking on water. As I looked up at the same sea that this story was talking about, I was overwhelmed with the Spirit that testified to me that this was true and Jesus Christ really did come to earth and lives again. It was a very powerful moment and one of the strongest I had there. I didn’t give myself enough time alone with the scriptures and my thoughts to allow the Spirit to testify to me as much as I had wished I had and I think the early morning is a special time for that quiet alone time. Each room has a balcony facing the Old City — sneak out and sit outside and watch the city wake up as you ponder and pray. I am absolutely positive you won’t regret it. Plus you have plenty of bus rides to take catch-up naps.

Another similar suggestion is to go take the short walk to the Church of All Nations (the Garden of Gethsemane) as often as you can. There is a shortcut path on your walk down to the Old City where you can cut through the Orson Hyde Gardens and make it to the Garden of Gethsemane fairly quickly. I loved that this was just a quick walk and wish that I visited more often. The church has the best acoustics and a beautiful rock that pilgrims go up and touch. The priest gave some of us the opportunity to walk through the fenced part of the garden with the oldest trees. It is such a peaceful place that I recommend visiting often.

#13: Use a zipper purse to avoid getting pickpocketed

My friend had her purse strapped across her shoulder and chest but since it was open at the top, it was an easy target for pickpocketing. A young man came towards her yelling in a foreign language and bumped into her while he took the money out of her purse. It was very quick and then he was gone. You will receive a necklace purse you can keep under your clothes, which is what I used a lot. As much of a fashion statement-kill it is, it’s better than having your money stolen.

#14: Start a Sunset Club

Find a group of people and make a sunset club. Invite everyone, it’s more fun to have people who you don’t normally group up with. If you can, do a sunrise group a couple times during your time there. We were given permission to take a walk outside the Center and watch the sun rise over the Wadi towards Jordan. There really is nothing like a beautiful sunrise or sunset to remind yourself the amazing privilege it is to be in this Holy City. Also, the Jersualem Center looks absolutely stunning during the golden hour. The best place to sit is off to the side of the right side of the chapel windows near the olive garden where the Center’s oil is pressed.

#15: Take a small hymnbook and write the place you sang that song

I took with me a small hymnbook I received as a child in my scripture bag and it turned out to be something I greatly treasure today. On all your field trips, you will have a devotional from your professor and you’ll sing a few songs. Whenever we did so, I wrote down on that hymn page the place and the date. The small book has started falling apart since then so I don’t use it often, but I cherish it and love to look back at the songs we sang and where it was (most names I have completely forgotten until I see it on the page). There are many songs you sing many times and others you sing once. And places where you sing dozens because the acoustics are amazing, like the Bell Caves at Beit Guvrin.

#16: Memorize The Living Christ while you are there.

Probably the thing I am most happy I did was tried to memorize The Living Christ. Me and a few friends had decided to towards the second half and end of the 4-month stay and so we recited so we could have it memorized before we left. I vividly remember being in a tiny almost golf cart vehicle that drove a small group of us up the windy roads to the Mount of Transfiguration I believe, and my friend Melinda and I repeating the paragraphs we had memorized to each other. This testimony given by my prophet and apostles was the testimony that I was gaining for myself during these experiences I was blessed to have during my pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

My last bit of advice: give yourself grace. You will be hangry, you will be sweaty, you’ll get annoyed and tired and stressed. It won’t always be rainbows and butterflies, but like anything, the happy memories will last longer and you will have the most amazing growth experience of your lifetime.

To end, here is something one of our senior doctor wrote for a talk he invited us to after we came home. I loved it and I tweaked it for my own talk when asked to share about my experience there. This is just the last part of my talk:

As I walked in the paths and places spoken of in the scriptures, I have wondered, “How does one grasp the magnitude and significance of these places in such a short time?” Just seeing them has not given me an adequate appreciation for the millennia of history passing by. The names of prophets, kings, and the places where they lived and died slid by as though I were on some amusement park ride. Frequently, I had to just stop and look around and say to myself, “This is Jerusalem! You’re in the Old City—the Holy City. Slow down until you can feel it…And then take the pictures.” I came to Jerusalem, to Israel, hoping to draw closer to Jesus, wanting to walk the paths where He had walked. Many times during my stay, I lamented not feeling His presence. The schedule was too hectic, or the noise or other distractions got in the way. While there were many times that I was touched, emotionally and spiritually, even to the point of tears, there was still something more I wanted – something unfulfilled.

While sitting on the Mount of Olives, and again while looking into the empty tomb in the peaceful garden, an answer came to me.  It was similar to the answer given to Mary when she came looking for Jesus:  “He is not here, He is risen” (Luke 24:6)

Simple, yet so profound!  He is not found in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity, though Christians believe He was there. He is not found in any of the hundreds of churches that have been built on traditional sites of His ministry. He is not in any of these places.

We find Him today where He promised we would. We find Him when we partake of the sacrament. We find Him when we are gathered together in His name. We find Him in His holy house. We find Him in keeping His commandments.

Yes, I now have context for scripture study. I know where certain events happened and I know more about the people who lived then because we learned so much about ancient culture. To spend so much time where the Savior lived and where he performed so many miracles was a life-changing experience. But to spend so much time in the scriptures, in one-on-one prayer, in the temple, all places where the Savior NOW lives is an even more transformative experience than you could never get from standing on some old dusty ruins.

Two thousand years have passed since the Mortal Messiah walked the paths and hillsides of Israel. Much has changed, yet much remains the same. The important question to ask is not whether I walked today where Jesus walked, but if I am walking today where Jesus would have me walk.

To those who are off on this study abroad adventure, I hope this has given you some practical tips to really take advantage of the amazing opportunity you have to be in this Holy Land. And for those who are reading and not able to visit Israel anytime soon, I hope this post has encouraged you to take advantage of the amazing opportunities we have right at our fingertips every day to become closer to God. Because you don’t need an experience like this study abroad to have a life-transformative moment. That can even happen where you’re sitting right now.

Have a happy blessed holy day! Please comment below if you went on this study abroad and have any other suggestions for new students!

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