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Program Locations

Overseas Seminars - Israel


Between Heaven and Earth:
Exploring Sacred Space in Judaism, Christianity and Islam
Study in Israel with Steve Weitzman

Arrival Date in Tel Aviv: June 18, 2013
Departure Date from Tel Aviv: July 7, 2013

Information Session: Monday, October 15, 12:15 - 1:30pm

@Room 029, Ground Floor, Sweet Hall


Based in Israel, this three week seminar aims to explore the creation and role of sacred space in the world’s three great monotheistic traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We will seek to understand the origins of the “Holy Land” and the rise of various kinds of sacred space that have developed in Jerusalem, the Judean wilderness, the Galilee and Mount Carmel. We will also learn about the creation of civic spaces in the context of the modern state of Israel and the city of Tel Aviv.

More specifically, the course has four learning objectives:

  1. To introduce students to Judaism, Christianity and Islam (and some smaller religious communities like the Baha’i) through stories and places considered foundational in each of these traditions.
  2. To explore the phenomenon of sacred space—why some spaces are considered sacred, how sacred spaces change over time, and how the differences between religious communities are reflected in the kinds of places they consider sacred.
  3. To expose students to the religious diversity of Israel/Palestine/the Holy Land in a way that deepens and broadens their understanding of the area and its inhabitants.
  4. To better understand the role of religion as a factor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and whether it is possible to resolve a conflict over sacred space.

Course Structure

The course is divided into three units, each tied to a different geographical region, different historical period(s) and different kinds of spaces.

Jerusalem and the Judean Wilderness
Jerusalem is venerated as a holy city by Jews, Muslims and Christians, but it means different things to each of these traditions, and it means different things within each tradition. We will explore the differences and commonalities among these communities by visiting the sacred sites they have created in Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Garden Tomb. This week will also include excursions to liminal spaces, including the Judean desert, home to Masada and the Dead Sea Scrolls, where we will learn about the role of the wilderness in the area’s history and imagination.

The Galilee and Haifa
From Jerusalem, the course will head north to the Galilee and the city of Haifa. In this region, we will explore the forms of sacred space that developed after the age of the Jerusalem Temple--the church, the synagogue, and the tombs of holy men. We will explore the birthplace of Christianity, consider the impact of the Crusades by visiting a Crusader castle, and learn about Jewish mystical tradition by traveling to one of its holiest cities, Safed. We will also have a chance to learn about the challenges of being Arab in Israel and to learn firsthand about the modern Israeli institution known as the kibbutz by staying at one for several days.

Tel Aviv

Moving from Haifa to Tel Aviv, we will end the course by exploring the relationship between diasporic space and homeland, and comparing sacred and civic space. Nationalism, secularism, modernism and globalization have created new kinds of space in contemporary Israel, and we will be exploring their impact through the city of Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city and an expression of its secular and cosmopolitan dimensions.

The seminar will take place in four major locations in Israel. We will spend the first week of the course in Jerusalem, a holy city to Jews, Christians and Muslims. Jerusalem includes an old city where many holy sites are located and which feels very different from the modern city of Jerusalem, which is full of open-air cafes, markets and residential neighborhoods. Jerusalem is also an ethnically divided city: west Jerusalem is largely Jewish, and Hebrew is the main language spoken on the street. East Jerusalem is mostly Arab, with Muslim and Christian residents, and Arabic is the main language in use. One of our day trips in this period will be to the Judean desert, which is extremely arid and hot and includes the Dead Sea, which is hypersaline and the lowest place on earth not under water.

After Jerusalem, we will be traveling to the northern part of the country, the Galilee and Haifa on the Mediterranean coast. The Galilee is pastoral hill country, dominated by the Sea of Galilee, and Haifa is a major Mediterranean seaport city known for being among the most integrated areas in Israel. The course will end in Tel Aviv, a secular cosmopolitan city joined to an older sister-city, the port-town of Jaffa.


Living and Traveling Conditions
Israel is geographically and culturally situated between Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Its inhabitants include a large Arabic-speaking population, along with a Jewish population that has ethnic roots all over the world, and a growing a number of foreign workers. Its population is also religiously diverse, including Jews, Muslims, Christians and other smaller religious groups along with a large secularized population. While many Israelis are secular, Jewish religious tradition is woven into public life in a way that is unfamiliar to many Americans. Most businesses shut down for the Sabbath, for example (observed on Friday night and Saturday in Israel), and many restaurants abide by Jewish dietary law which prohibits certain foods like pork and eating meat and dairy dishes at the same meal.

Israel is known for its high tech industry and scientific research, but it also has qualities of a developing nation and struggles with issues like social and economic inequality and the challenge of integrating large numbers of immigrants from places like Russia and Ethiopia. Much of Israeli society affirms gender equality and includes protections for women and GLBT people, but individual religious communities can adhere to much more traditional gender roles, maintaining boundaries between men and women and less hospitable to expressions of GLBT identity. All this makes Israel a very diverse and eclectic place but one fraught with many social, religious and cultural tensions.

Having faced the possibility of terrorism for many decades, Israel takes security very seriously. Security at the airport is much tighter than at American airports, involving the inspection of luggage especially when leaving the country. At many public establishments, guards monitor the entrance and check bags, and unattended bags are treated like potential bombs, triggering a security response. With a few exceptions, all Israelis are required to serve for two or three years in the military and the sight of armed soldiers in Israel, male and female, is a common one. Israel is a popular tourist destination, receiving millions of tourists per year, and the sight of other visitors is also a common one.

Israel’s official languages include Hebrew and Arabic but English is also widely spoken and many signs will be in all three languages.

Participants in the program will be in shared rooms in all locations at a dormitory-style housing, hotel or equivalent. Students should expect that there may be no Internet in their rooms and there may be less privacy and personal space that they may be used to on the home campus. Visiting sights may require extensive walking, and locations like the Old City of Jerusalem require walking up and down hills through narrow, crowded streets. Since we will be visiting a number of holy sites, we will need to be respectful of people’s religious sensibilities, which means wearing long pants and having shoulders covered. In some places, men and women will be expected to cover their heads. During one day, we plan to visit an archaeological excavation and to participate in the dig on a voluntary basis. Participants in that experience should be in good health and expect an experience that includes working in dust and heat, bending over and kneeling.

Israel is hot during the summer but the weather can vary from region to region: Jerusalem heat tends to be dry; Tel Aviv can be more humid. Some places cool down at night; others do not. A major health concern will be dehydration, so drinking a lot of water will always be important. Dietary selections may be limited so students with severe restrictions should carefully evaluate their ability to participate comfortably.


Steve Weitzman ( is the Daniel E. Koshland Professor of Jewish Culture and Religion, Director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies and director of undergraduate studies for Stanford’s Religious Studies department. His work centers on the Hebrew Bible and what it means for different kinds of readers, and some of his research also focuses on the literature composed in the centuries following the biblical age--the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient sources.  Prof. Weitzman’s most recent publication is a biography of King Solomon from Yale University Press entitled Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom which explores the role of this king in cultural and religious history.  Earlier publications include Surviving Sacrilege: Jewish Cultural Persistence in Antiquity (Harvard University Press, 2005), Religion and the Self in Antiquity (Indiana University Press, 2005); and a history textbook entitled The Jews (Prentice Hall, 2009).

Professor Weitzman received his Ph.D. from Harvard University after completing his B.A. at UC Berkeley, and spent several years teaching in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University where he served as director of its Jewish Studies program for six years. At Stanford since 2009, many of his courses focus on the role the Bible has played in the development of faith and culture, or on the foundational texts, people and ideas of Jewish culture. His teaching includes a Thinking Matters course entitled “Ultimate Meanings”, a freshman introductory seminar that explores various representations of the afterlife, and an introduction to Judaism as a religion. He is also a Resident Fellow in Roble Hall. Prior to the seminar, Prof. Weitzman can be reached at and he is always happy to schedule an individual meeting.


Enrollment Capacity
15 undergraduate students.


Prerequisites and Expectations
This course is open to students of all backgrounds and academic fields. Prior study of religion, history or international relations may strengthen an application, but no specific major or coursework is required. Participants will be expected to be mature, empathetic, open to new experience, and supportive of their fellow students. We will be visiting places that have profound significance for the people who worship there, and meeting people who have had very intense experiences, and we will need to very sensitive to and respectful of all the different points of view that we will encounter, whether or not we agree with them.

Preparation for the course includes two mandatory orientations during the academic year, and at least one additional orientation meeting during the spring quarter. There will be some required reading prior to the course (along with additional recommended readings that are optional). To fulfill the requirements of the course, students will also be expected to draw on their reading and experience to answer three questions in a brief essay format, due at the end of the seminar.


Grading Basis
Letter grade.


Passport and Visa
Students are solely responsible for obtaining their passport and visa. Every BOSP participant MUST have a signed passport that is valid for at least 6 months after the scheduled RETURN date from the overseas program. Students who do not have a valid passport must apply for a new or renewed passport immediately. For information on obtaining or renewing a U.S. passport see To expedite your passport processing, click on the following link and go to the appropriate tab:
For visa information for this specific seminar, please click on the link below and go to the appropriate tab:


Health and Safety
Students on international programs should be aware that attitudes toward medical conditions, disabilities, and psychological conditions vary by culture and under the laws of the host countries. These differences impact the level of treatment and accommodation available abroad. Students should give serious consideration to their health and personal circumstances when accepting a place in a program and should consult with their physicians.

A student in reasonably good health and without ambulatory issues should be able to fully participate in the course, but please not the following:

  1. Because of heat, students should be mindful of the risk of dehydration and make sure to keep themselves properly hydrated. Excursions include visits to a desert, and please note that Israel is known to suffer intense heat waves.
  2. One likely excursion includes voluntary participation in an archaeological excavation. Digging includes working in hot and dusty conditions, kneeling and bending, and some carrying.
  3. Israel is an environmentally diverse place and students with allergy issues may have one experience in Jerusalem (arid), another in the Galilee (more agrarian) and another in Tel Aviv (more urbanized, closer to the Ocean).
  4. It sometimes takes a few days for students to adjust to the food and water in Israel. These are healthy but stomach issues are not uncommon in the first few days.
Students must be aware that certain immunizations maybe be required to protect their health in Israel. Students must review the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website for complete information on health conditions and vaccinations in Israel at Students must also consult the on-campus Vaden Health Center Travel Clinic ( Students are expected to make an appointment with the on-campus Vaden Health Center Travel Clinic as soon as they are accepted to the program at (650) 498-2336 ext. 1 to discuss any health concerns, pre-departure immunizations and any personal prescriptions before going abroad.


Students must review the U.S. State Department’s consular information website for complete information on safety and security in Israel at


Students must be aware and understand that Israel is on the list of countries under the U.S. Department of State’s Travel Warning and know the risks of traveling to Israel. Travel Warnings are issued by the U.S. Department of State when long-term, protracted conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable lead to the State Department to recommend that Americans avoid or consider the risk of travel that country. The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the risks traveling to Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, and about threats to themselves and to U.S. interests in those locations. Students must review the most up-to-date U.S. Department of State’s Travel Warning to Israel at If you are uncomfortable traveling under such conditions, you should not apply to this seminar. As with any foreign travel, emphasis will be placed on staying away from questionable situations, avoiding injury, and preventing infectious disease. Students will be expected to travel in groups, avoid travel at night, and stay with the group unless prior approval is obtained. Additional issues of personal health and safety and precautions will be discussed in detail during the mandatory pre-seminar preparation and upon arriving in country.

While overseas, students are advised to be alert to their surroundings, and be particularly aware of any health and safety advisories for the areas in which they will be visiting. Students should consult with their physicians to be prepared for potential illness.  Additional safety and health precautions and other important considerations will be provided at the pre-departure orientation.