By Barb Arland-Fye
DAVENPORT — Alexandra Schnell anticipated visiting businesses in Israel, but the St. Ambrose University student didn’t foresee the impact of the cultural, spiritual and historical aspects of her study abroad experience this past winter.
She was one of seven Ambrosians — five students and two professors — who traveled to Israel in January for a study abroad experience designed by another professor, Mark Brand, who died months before the trip. “This trip meant everything to him, so out of respect for Dr. Brand and his family, we decided to continue with the trip as he planned,” Alexandra said.
“We went to Hebrew University first, which is in the heart of Jerusalem and has a beautiful campus. Second, we went to Bethlehem University, which, despite its surroundings, does everything for its students. The last college we visited was Sapir College in the south. This school brought tears to my eyes. The front of the property is facing the Gaza Strip. Students and faculty live daily in fear of being hit with missiles, but they still attend the college.”
The group toured a variety of historical and religious sites. Alexandra appreciated seeing one of the world’s greatest wonders — the Dead Sea — from the top of the Masada ruins, which she described as breathtakingly beautiful. She also said going to the Old City of Jerusalem was a wonderful opportunity.
“Everything was so perfectly preserved and precious; it was hard not to be emotional from time to time. One day we walked to Mary’s tomb right outside of the Old City. Once we arrived inside there were gorgeous paintings and statues. To see the actual tomb we had to go down stairs. As we started walking down the stairs you could hear faint singing, but as soon as you got to the bottom the singing was clear and overwhelming with emotions. I think what really made my heart warm was seeing this woman walk down the stairs and the second she laid her eyes on Mary’s tomb, she fell to her knees and cried out of complete happiness. That moment I will never forget.”
Ian Ross, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at St. Ambrose, said Professor Brand inspired him to participate in this study abroad, his second trip to Israel.
“Whereas my first trip to Israel was more about traveling, this course (Political Economy of Israel) focused more on the many cultures and businesses in the relatively small piece of land in a desert. Of all the things that we learned, what stuck with me the most was the desire for peace among the people we spoke with. Our group asked people in Jerusalem, in Bethlehem, near Gaza, and in Tel Aviv what they wanted between the opposing groups in Israel. Those we spoke with stated their desire for peace, and, if asked, their belief that a two-state solution would be the best option.”
The study abroad provided a sense of Israel’s history, a window into its contemporary makeup and diverse population, including its political economy and the government’s significant role in that economy, said Professor Patrick O’Leary, who teaches managerial studies in the College of Business at St. Ambrose.
What O’Leary took away from the study abroad was “a deeper appreciation for the centrality of Israel in U.S. foreign policy, its role in the region, and the sheer complexity of Israel itself.” And, he noted, “You can’t walk down the streets of Jerusalem without seeing displays of faith – Jewish, Muslim and Christian. You have the three of them meeting right there … You can’t come away from that untouched, unmoved.”
Allan Ross, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Quad Cities (and father of Ian Ross), assisted with logistics and fund-raising for the two-week study abroad. Assisting with the itinerary from Israel was Professor Ruthie Eitan of Sapir College, who has previously made presentations at St. Ambrose University.
“It’s absolutely vital for our kids to have international experience,” Allan Ross said. “The world is so much smaller these days and without the international experience we won’t be able to compete and our kids won’t be able to compete in the global economy.”
Scholarship created for Israel studies
Study abroad in Israel is expensive. Through the help of a donor within the Jewish Federation of the Quad Cities, Nancy Heeren, an initial fund of $10,000 created the Heeren Family Scholarship Fund for Israel Studies at St. Ambrose. Money from that scholarship fund, the Rauch Family Foundation II and Jewish Federation of the Quad-Cities, helped fund the study abroad trip in January by five students and two professors from St. Ambrose University in Davenport.