On Sunday evening, September 6, 2015, the auditorium at Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center was packed with people. Below our seats, on the stage, three young musicians gave a brilliant performance of the unusual, absolutely lovely, Brahms Clarinet Trio in A minor.
Beyond the 350-seat auditorium’s huge glass windows behind the musicians, Jerusalem began losing its evening glow. Now, as we watched, lights began to sparkle throughout the city. The music continued: adagio, andante grazioso, allegro. And when it ended, the trio – and perhaps the view as well – received a resounding ovation.
Constructed of Jerusalem stone, Italian marble, imported teak wood and about 30,000 panes of glass, the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies on Mount Scopus is one of the most exquisite buildings in Jerusalem. Often called the Mormon University, the eight-story edifice is worth a visit even without the panoramic view it offers to students, volunteers, faculty and guests.
A harmoniously blended glass-and-wood entrance introduces two brass fountains, rolling lawns and brilliant foliage. Biblical herbs and flowers (rosemary, wild lemon, thyme, oregano, lavender, dwarf ivy, water lilies and more) are featured in a second garden, along with dozens of olive trees. Within the center are several glassed-in courtyards graced by fig, palm and pomegranate trees.
But most remarkable of all is the auditorium, an enormous window-enclosed room with a Marcussen organ from Denmark reaching to the roof. The gift of anonymous donors and easily worth $500,000, the organ consists of more than 3,000 pipes – including horizontal Spanish trumpets. Landscaped hills are visible from each side of the auditorium through glass walls covered with latticed teak. As a result, patterns reflected on the Jerusalem stone outside the hall change constantly with movement of the sun.
Nearly every Sunday, and on some Thursdays as well, the general public is invited into the auditorium to enjoy wonderful free concerts. But that’s only one way that the university gives something back to the country: BYU also donates generously to organizations and charities in need.
One of nearly a dozen Mormon educational centers scattered all over the world, the Jerusalem-based campus was completed in 1988 although the university has had students in Jerusalem since late 1967. The center offers a semester-abroad program for students at Brigham Young University in Utah, in which lectures and seminars on the Middle East are combined with field trips to archaeological and modern sites named in the holy books.
The class on biblical customs includes realistic demonstrations. During the fall semester, for example, students press olives from the center’s groves into olive oil in a reconstructed ancient oil press. Students can choose to learn beginning Arabic or Hebrew (after all, they are only here for 15 weeks). Noted professors and guest lecturers from a variety of backgrounds teach politics, archaeology, current events and history.
Conversation areas are located near many of the 117 arches. These areas have comfortable chairs on bright blue Israeli designer rugs trimmed with color. A splendid library features sky-lighting in coordination with teakwood-topped light fixtures.
BYU’s Jerusalem Center is built over 400 huge pillars, all of which rest on solid rock. One of the windows is exceptional. Located at the end of a corridor and arched into a half-moon, its multicolored reflections on the shiny marble floors turn it into a circular marvel.
Art exhibits, which change twice a year, are hosted in one beautiful hall. The current exhibit features matkot: paddles that drive people crazy as they sunbathe on the beach and players bat a little ball over (and sometimes onto) their heads. Eighty different artists offer viewers their visions of matkot – sometimes touching, often hilarious, and always creative – in this unusual exhibit.
This particular exhibit will be on display until December 13, when it will be replaced by another. While you can’t just walk into the center to see the exhibit any time you like, it is open one hour before, and for half an hour after, concert performances.
Another option is to join one of the center’s free tours, open to tourists and Israelis alike, with the opportunity of viewing much of what the Jerusalem Center has to offer. Joyce and Jeff Smith, the current hosting couple, lead the tours, which begin with a short movie about the center.
On our most recent visit, we learned from Mrs. Smith that the current group of students numbers 62 – over a dozen less than the center can accommodate. At one time, we were told, students stood in line to get in – but things changed when the situation in Israel changed. Too bad, as not only do students learn an immense amount, see the country and participate in charitable works of their own, but each of their apartments faces the most glorious view in the city.
Before you begin touring the building, you are invited into the auditorium where Marybeth Jones, half of the current couple in charge of music, demonstrates the wonders of the organ.
When we were there last, she played three different, completely contrasting pieces so we could get the full impact of the organ’s capabilities and the auditorium’s acoustics.
Guides then take you on a walk through the center to view Byzantine-era mosaics on loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority, hear an explanation of the center’s architecture, and listen to the peaceful sound of falling water at a fountain designed by famous sculptor Israel Hadani.
Outside, facing Jerusalem, you examine four excellent models of the city. One model depicts Jerusalem in the First Temple period, another the Second Temple era, a third shows Jerusalem during Byzantine rule and the fourth of East Jerusalem today.
Although the last three are also on view at the David’s Tower Museum, here you look straight out from the models into the city. Your tour ends in the Biblical gardens.
No doubt you will have lots of questions for your guides. But although they will readily tell you anything you want to know about Brigham Young University and the Jerusalem Center, they will not answer any questions about religion – so as to preserve harmony with Israel’s religious establishment. Instead, they focus on the unparalleled view, the students, the stupendous building, the lovely interior decoration, and the fragrant biblical garden.
Tours are held on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays every half hour from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and from 14:00 p.m. to 15:30 p.m. No reservations needed unless you are a group of 10 or more – then call (in Israel) 02-626-5666.
There are still tickets left for this season’s terrific concerts. For information send an email to the center at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 02 626-5666.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.