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Back to Israel

By Linnae Stole '10
December 22, 2010

A photo of Jerusalem's Wailing Wall taking by a St. Olaf student on a previous study abroad program in Israel. The upcoming January Interim program will be the first St. Olaf class to enter the country in 11 years.

For the first time in more than 11 years, St. Olaf students will travel to Israel in January for a three-and-a-half week Interim program that will explore such ancient locales as Jerusalem, Jericho, Bethlehem, and Galilee. Professor Jim Hanson ’83 will lead the group.

The class, Historical Geography and the Bible in the Holy Land, will provide an opportunity for students to experience the intimate connection between the Bible and the land that gave birth to it. “Israel and Palestine represent one of the most central geopolitical areas in the world, important both for its history and its contemporary significance in world politics,” Hanson explains. “Generations of St. Olaf students, including myself, have studied there and had their perspectives fundamentally altered and exponentially expanded. Students share these new insights and contribute in ways both large and small to the efforts of bringing lasting peace to the region.”

Despite the 11-year absence, St. Olaf still retains strong ties with Israel, largely due to students and alumni who have traveled, lived, and worked there. Mark Brown ’78, who traveled on Term in the Middle East in 1976–77, has worked as the regional representative in Jerusalem for the Lutheran World Federation for a number of years and has proved an important source of information for the program. Eric Lund, director of Off-Campus and International Studies, along with associate director Kathy Tuma, have worked to renew other necessary contacts. And Hanson and Lund visited the region last summer for additional preparations.

A long-term connection
St. Olaf’s connections to Israel date back to the mid-1960s, when the late Professor of Religion Ansgar Sovik, together with Professor of Art Reidar Dittmann ’47, established the Term in the Middle East program. For many years students spent the entire semester in Jerusalem’s Old City, usually living in the Lutheran Hostel. Interim was spent tracing the development of early Christianity in Greece, Italy, and sometimes Turkey.

James Hanson '83

“Living in the Old City gave us the opportunity to develop friendships and contacts with a totally different culture and world,” recalls Joan Terres Stole ’77, also a 1976–77 Term in the Middle East participant. “Everyone in our group became more aware of the global community, which for me resulted in a heightened interest in world events. Furthermore, living together for five months developed a community and fostered friendships that have lasted for more than 30 years.”

In 1989, an advisory group decided to broaden the focus of the Term in the Middle East. To allow for more comparative study of the Mideast and Arab North Africa, the  program began to spend equal amounts of time in Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, and Israel. The Second Intifada uprising broke out in the West Bank in fall 2000. The subsequent imposition of a State Department travel warning halted St. Olaf study travel to Israel indefinitely. But as the situation has calmed in recent years, St. Olaf faculty have determined that it is possible to travel safely in Israel as long as programs stay away from less stable areas like the Gaza Strip. Thus, plans are in the works to once again add a visit to Israel to the 2011–12 Term in the Middle East.

Safety first
St. Olaf has been sending students overseas since 1952, giving the college plenty of experience keeping the risks of international travel to a minimum (read about St. Olaf's No. 1 ranking in study abroad). The International and Off-Campus Studies Office, in conjunction with partners in the region, will be monitoring events and conditions in Israel closely, and all necessary safety precautions will be taken.

“St. Olaf students and faculty who have traveled to Israel recently report that daily life is as normal there as anywhere, except for the checkpoints for crossing into the West Bank,” Hanson says. “They have testified to the life-changing experience it can be and have urged us to resume sending student groups.” 

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or