Just up the hill there. On the slopes of Mt. Scopus.
Wow, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You’ve got quite a pad there.
The Mormons have built one of the most distinctive -- and beautiful -- complexes in the holy city -- a multi-arched-and-domed satellite campus of Salt Lake City’s Brigham Young University known as The Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies.
Set in five acres of gardens dotted with plants found in the Bible, the 125,000-square-foot, eight-floor center sits in occupied Arab East Jerusalem, overlooking the Mount of Olives and the Old City. It was designed by Israeli architect David Resnick, who also designed the nearby campus of the Hebrew University.
The outside of BYU’s Jerusalem campus is made entirely of hand-carved white Jerusalem limestone, according to local laws. The inside is full of Italian marble and huge glass windows facing the Old City. Each student dormitory apartment -- the campus has room for some 170 students -- has a patio overlooking the city’s famed gold Dome of the Rock. And its concert hall houses what is said to be the largest organ in the Middle East -- a gigantic, 3,000-pipe affair made in Denmark.
All this didn’t come without a price, though.
The building of the center became a national -- and even an international -- issue. And after it was finally opened, it had to subsequently shut down for six years because of the security situation caused by the second intifada launched by Palestinians against Israeli occupation.
Plans to build the center were first announced by the Church of Latter-day Saints in 1979. Five years later, the Mormons had obtained a 49-year lease on the land and had begun construction.
Construction quickly caught the attention of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox conservatives, the Haredim, who vigorously protested the building of a large Mormon center, saying it would be used for proselytizing, not as a school. Streets protests and demonstrations ensued; Ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered at the Wailing Wall in a public prayer of mourning; they went to a hotel where a BYU president was staying carrying signs saying “conversion is murder” and “Mormons, stop your mission now.“
The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, finally asked the Mormons to sign a formal promise not to proselytize Jews, a move even some Israelis considered discriminatory, since no other Christian church had been asked to do that in Jerusalem. The Church of Latter-day Saints agreed. The BYU campus opened in 1988.
The center is only open to the public on specified days at specific times for organized tours.
What the Mormons have done, though, is make its large, beautiful concert hall the venue for weekly -- and even bi-weekly -- free concerts by a selection of well-known Israeli musicians.
“Since they can’t proselytize, they hold those free concerts instead,“ said a Jewish neighbor of mine, “so you can see how nice they are, I guess. All I know is that I’ve been to a few of the concerts and they’re really good.“
I tried to get a ticket for a recent concert -- but all 300-plus free tickets were taken. Too popular among Israeli Jews, the Mormon center. I‘ll have to try again next week.