The plane revs its engine as it begins to soar down the runway. The feeling of the tires leaving the asphalt causes a cry to rise in the heart of the student.
“This is not how it is supposed to be.”
“This cannot be happening right now.”
“I don’t want to leave.”
The metal bird refuses to acknowledge the whispered wails as it rapidly maneuvers through the clouds, away from the land. The student is forced to acknowledge that this phase of life has ended, sooner than anticipated.
After 50 semesters of the Israel Bible Extension program (IBEX), only two are known for being exiled: the fall 2001 and spring 2020 groups. High expectations are formed when applying for what they are told will be an experience of a lifetime. Little did the students from these groups know just how true that would be; but not in the way they imagined.
For many, IBEX is the only opportunity to spend three months in Israel. Leaving behind life in America and looking forward to their only concern being to saturate their minds as much as possible with the land and the Bible. However, for the students in 2001 and 2020, expectations were quickly transformed.
It is September 2001, the students from The Master’s College hop on a flight, excited to land in Israel and start their adventures. Among the many reasons for a student to choose to spend a semester in Israel, fall ’01 student Angie Mah (formerly Devore) mentions the most popular, “to experience the places, biblical places, to learn more about the Bible and also it just sounded fun being with a group of students, getting to know them better.”
There was no indication that in ten days the outlook of the world would change by reintroducing the power of fear; challenging, not only students’ expectations, but also their trust in the sovereignty of God.
After the 30 students landed in Israel, they began their tour of the land. They explored the Moshav, familiarizing themselves with their new home, and after jet lag settled they started to venture farther into the country.
On Sept. 11 the students took a field trip to the Israel museum and the 2nd century model of Jerusalem. It was a beautiful sunny day, the perfect day to be in Israel. Gazing at the model as their professor lectured, a sound rings out.
The only student who has a cell phone, Todd Pellowe, was receiving a call. Falling to his knees, the others wonder what the caller could be saying, finding it strange that he would be receiving a phone call. Closing the phone, Pellowe announces the news. The Twin Towers have been attacked.
“I just remember the professor saying okay guys let’s pray. So, he went ahead and prayed, and he carried on with his lecture,” Mah said, “And as I look back, I think having grown up overseas, it didn’t really hit me, the severity of the situation at the time.”
After the moment passes, they resume their day with a cloud hanging over their heads. The bus ride home is quiet as the weight of the event rests on the shoulders of each student. One of the graduate students, Seth Rodriguez, contemplated the ride back.
“They turned on the radio, the news…it was in Hebrew, so [one of the IBEX professors] was translating for us…we got back to Yad Hashmona, we all got off the bus and literally filed into the lobby area where they have those TVs and so together we saw for the first time the planes hitting the towers,” Rodriguez said.
In the aftermath of the event, the school administration made the call to bring the students back early but provided them enough time to see a glimpse of the land. No field trip was spared as they rushed through the material, cramming it into their mind with no time to process. But as they journeyed through, they noticed a change in the culture of Israel. Rodriguez notes a stark change when talking with an Israeli taxi driver.
“When he found out I was an American he just expressed remorse and said when he saw what happened in New York he started crying,” Rodriguez said. “It really impacted the Israeli culture. Immediately one change that happened in Jerusalem was within just a few days of 9/11 there were posters up all over Jerusalem with an Israeli flag and an United States flag with the words ‘United States we’re behind you’ and so there was this very empathetic show of support in Israel for the Americans because they knew what it was like, they live with terrorist attacks all the time.”
After a month, it was time for the students to leave. There were mixed reactions among the students, many disappointed and frustrated, but there were a few supporters. On Oct. 3, the students were placed on a flight to Southern California to finish their semester on familiar ground. Although it was nice to back with friends from campus, the friendship bond that usually takes place in Israel did not solidify when they were back in the States living normal life.
“It felt a little dispersed,” Mah commented. “Me and some of my friends got put in Dixon, there was a study lounge downstairs and they converted it and there were several bunkbeds, so that was kind of nice…[but] Some people got moved to apartments…on Railroad.”
They were not together in the dorms, rather stuck wherever there was an available room for them. They did take their classes together on campus, as professors stepped in to take on the responsibility of the courses. Even though the students did not get the full IBEX experience and many dispersed to different parts of the country and the world, they were able to keep in contact for a while, maintaining a small slice of the community IBEX creates.
The uncalled-for twist in the semester created a unique bond because of the memories they share of one of the most important US events, one that would change the security in our nation. And Mah noticed, even then, the importance of realizing and relying on the sovereignty of God.
“You feel like you got gypped, but then you just factor in God’s sovereignty and that was we got to experience that. And I also think…there are so many people who don’t get to go, so [I am] thankful for the time,” she said.
Fear may have been a factor in the exile of the fall 2001 students, but in spring 2020 political leaders and the media took the power of fear to a new extreme.
The spring 2020 group had already become best friends and it was only week one. Everyone told them that this group was made up of all the high-quality people from the 2018 freshman class. They knew that this trip would only solidify both the existent and developing friendships, creating an IBEX culture like no other.
Arriving in Israel, we experienced the same joy and awe felt by every student before us. The morning of the second day we finally got to see the Moshav in full light, ending the tour in the Miklat or the bomb shelter. The signatures of 49 previous groups had left their mark on the wall and our group could not wait to live in IBEX infamy. How unaware of how infamous our group was soon to become.
Scanning the wall to find any recognizable names, we noticed an added word to some of the signature. ‘Exiled’ was printed under those who had to leave because of the terrorist attacks on the US on 9/11. Jokingly, a few commented on how horrible it would be if we got exiled.
Pushing those thoughts aside, our semester was normal. Field trips commenced as scheduled, plans for travel study progressed all while enjoying the adventures each day brought. It wasn’t long though before our world came crashing down on us. We started to experience close calls as COVID creeped into the country. Days after we had journeyed to the Dead Sea, Jericho and Shechem, Palestine closed its borders. We still thought COVID was a myth and did not begin to feel the implications until the next week.
Dr. Halstead came to visit us and the reality of COVID decided to pick up its pace. We started to loosely hold to the idea that we would be able to go on travel study. It was canceled quickly after learning Israel would not let us back into the country. Our professor, Nate Foreman, promised to make up for the loss of travel study by taking us to Egypt so that we could hike Mt. Sinai and sleep on top of it.
That too was canceled, only two days after we were told.
Thursday March 12 rolls around and we are about to hear more bad news. America has closed its borders to foreigners, sports and large gatherings are canceled, colleges are going online; Master’s will not let anyone who is coming from outside the country onto the campus, Halstead is leaving early and Beals is not coming.
And we are leaving two weeks early.
It was a shock to the system, and we needed more than a 15-minute break before class to process all the information that had just been dumped on us. But even in the midst of the hard, we did our best to focus on the blessings.
We were now living in a world of uncertainty. Three days later, things escalate further.
Readying to go to the Negev, we had woken up that morning with all the joys of Christmas. However, right before we head up to the bus with all our luggage, we receive a text that puts a pit in all our stomachs.
‘IBEX meeting in the classroom in 10 minutes. No need to bring luggage.’
We drag our feet while making our way to the classroom, bracing ourselves for what we are about to be told, fearing the worst. The whole country had shut down. There cannot longer be gatherings of over 10 people, which poses a problem for our group for thirty. The Negev will no longer take us. And we must leave the country even earlier, a whole month earlier.
We only have 10 days remaining.
While processing the bad news, willing the tears back; our professor offers us good news. Galilee will take us. We have 45 minutes to repack and be on the bus to spend an indefinite amount of time in Galilee. We quickly rearrange our suitcases, not knowing any details nor how long we will be there. Everything seems to be closing in on us.
The bus ride up was a celebration. Every student was determined to be joyful, we were going to Galilee, what more could we be thankful for? We made our way as quickly as possible up north so that we could get there before Galilee had time to change their mind and turn us away, making only one stop on the way up.
Stopping at Mt. Carmel was one of the most powerful field trips of our two months. We studied 1 Kings 18 and the question of the passage, ‘Is Yahweh, God?” We were all wrestling with the question of God’s sovereignty as our world and our perfectly planned and manicured semester was falling apart before our eyes. We knew we needed to make the most of our limited time.
Galilee was as beautiful as we imagined it to be, but it was the morning of the third day when we were hit by a semi-truck. The glimmer of hope that we could wait out COVID was finally gone.
We only had two days left.
The entire group burst into tears as the reality of leaving early was finally upon us, even though we willed it to disappear. In the two days we had left, we finished up our time in Galilee, spent five hours in the Old City, had our final goodbye party, signed the wall, took the Land and Bible quiz and final, cleaned the Moshav, packed all of our belongings and made it to the airport.
In the final hours of our semester, we reflected on the unique opportunity our group experienced in Jerusalem. The Old City was eerily quiet. The once were congested streets were empty. The hordes of shops with shopkeepers shouting at you to buy their products, were now diminished to a select few and the shopkeepers were pleading with you to buy their ten-shekel donkey.
Whispers sounded like shouts as they bounced off the cobblestone streets and buildings, echoing through the alleys. The most crowded tourist attractions only housed a few workers. Locations with lines out the door, could be walked straight into. It was a time in the Old City’s history which is not likely to be repeated.
As we finished our final goodbyes and laughed at the irony of joking about the exiled groups’ luck, we wrote our own form of exiled verbiage on the wall and the bunks, “Quarantined.” This is what we would be known for.
We waved an early goodbye to those who had kept us alive in our two-months in Israel. Our stomachs were twisted with pain and the flood gates reopened, producing tears we thought had all been cried.
It was not until we reached the airport that we saw our first real signs of COVID being lived out in the form of masked people. We all managed to get on the same flight going a direct fourteen hours to San Francisco. And when we landed, we counted our blessings once again, because 30 minutes after our flight had taken off, Israel had closed its borders.
Neither group obtained what they were anticipating when they signed up to explore the land of Israel, but both groups had a once in a lifetime experience. One was a significant US event and the other was a world-wide pandemic. However, as Dr. Bolen said, “What makes relationships stronger is those crisis experiences in another setting where there is nobody else to depend on, it’s just you guys, it’s your group and you have a unique dynamic that no one else can understand.” And neither group would not exchange their experience for the world.