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‘Great regret’: BYU Jerusalem Center cancels 2020-21 semesters because of COVID-19 threat

Israel has banned all foreigners from entering the country until Aug. 1. Other restrictions will remain in place.

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The BYU Jerusalem Center on Mount Scopus in East Jerusalem.

The Church of Jesus Christ

PROVO — Brigham Young University is planning to hold classes on its Utah campus this fall, but the BYU Jerusalem Center has canceled its programs for the 2020-21 school year.

Like Utah, Israel saw relatively few COVID-19 infections during the first months of the pandemic, but the number of cases accelerated sharply when the country began to reopen. More than 41,000 people have tested positive in Israel and 368 have died, according to Haaretz.

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Israel has banned all foreigners from entering the country until Aug. 1. Those with Israeli passports who fly into the country must quarantine for 14 days. Restrictions are in place for visitors throughout the Holy Land and in neighboring countries.

Traveling throughout the region is a key feature of the Jerusalem Center programs.

“It seems it’s going to be hard to get in and get around until there’s a vaccine,” said Jim Kearl, assistant to the BYU president for the Jerusalem Center.

The university canceled both the upcoming fall and winter semesters now because the university sends faculty to the Jerusalem Center for a year at a time.

“We had students who were going to go in the spring, then students who were going to go in the summer and then students who were planning to go in the fall. We had disappointed three groups,” Kearl said. “We just didn’t want to do it again for winter. We can start winter applications in November if it becomes possible.”

The center announced the decision to student applicants by email. The note expressed “great regret” over the decision and said all options had been explored. The email said center staff would void the $150 deposit checks sent by applicants.

Global travel disruptions prompted BYU to send its last students home early from the Jerusalem Center in March.

The Jerusalem Center’s winter term was scheduled to end April 23, but the center announced students would be sent home on March 27 instead. Then that date was accelerated and the students flew home on March 18 and 19.

“It was tough,” said Joe Gray, 25, of Wasilla, Alaska, who graduated from BYU in April with a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurial management and now lives in Lehi.

“Classwork in the program is front-loaded, though we did go to Egypt and the Red Sea, which was really cool, but the second half is when we really get to study the life of Christ and go to Galilee. We were going to be there for Passover and experience some pretty cool things, and I really went to the Jerusalem Center to understand my Savior better and feel him closer to me. We got sent home before we got to really get into that deep learning about his life and seeing where it happened.”

Gray said he had spiritual experiences that helped fill that void during the final days in Jerusalem.

“The last week or two of the trip after we found out we were leaving was one of the best parts of the trip because we were all so purposeful in going out and experiencing Jerusalem and all of Israel,” he said.

BYU has tried to restart the Jerusalem Center programs repeatedly, but pandemic-related restrictions forced it first to cancel its regular spring/summer program that was to begin on April 28. Then a shortened eight-week summer program that was to begin June 10 also fell victim to the pandemic.

Kearl said the Jerusalem Center is not completely closed, though the final 2019-20 faculty members are returning home this weekend.

The center launched a series of chamber music concerts in May. The concerts are held every Sunday evening in Jerusalem, or 11 a.m. Mountain Time. The concerts will continue weekly throughout 2020, Kearl said. They can be viewed on the BYU Jerusalem Center Facebook page.

The last concert featured a Toscanini string quartet from the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.