First-Year Finds Cultural Traditions and Tolerance in Jerusalem

By schwartzsa | April 13, 2012

International Studies major Andrew Kupstas ’15 was among 15 students who spent his spring break abroad as a part of Jerusalem Preview. He had always placed Jerusalem on the top of his list of places to visit, dreaming of traversing the via Delarosa, and taking in the grandeur of the Western Wall and Temple Mount. However, the experience was more eye opening than he had originally expected; Kupstas didn’t just connect with the historic sites of a religious city, he gained a deeper understanding of what it’s like to be a part of a rich traditional culture. (View more photos on Pinterest.)

Located between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea, Jerusalem is considered holy to the three major Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Glenside, students prepared to explore this epicenter of western religion by learning more about the many sites they would visit—the first step in understanding the historical and religious significance as well as the political implications of the scene. Kupstas tried to approach the travel portion of the course objectively, as to fully open himself up to new experiences.

“I wanted to come with a fresh perspective and be open minded about it. It’s definitely eye-opening when you first land there to see and be immersed in such a different culture, and honestly, before we even landed,” says Kupstas, noting the difference of dress and diet of the passengers with him he boarded the second flight from London to Jerusalem.

When they landed, the anxiety of going through customs and gathering belongings from baggage claim quickly dissolved as they traveled from the airport to the city. “We were just really excited and taking everything in…seeing this new culture kind of unfold around us,” he says.

One of the most impactful experiences occurred when the students spent a day on the West Bank, a Palestinian territory. As part of the itinerary, the group visited a local family for lunch. Tasting traditional food and conversing with the Palestinian family, Kupstas notes being struck by the narrative of a young man, newly engaged, who told the students he had met his fiancé four days before he proposed. When Kupstas asked to meet her, the young man declined, replying, “No, only women can see her.” It was a culture shock.

“Without actually being there, had I heard this, I probably would have thought that he is being too controlling of his wife,” admits Kupstas. “However, having a conversation with him during dinner, we realized that he is a perfectly nice man, and that he is just following the protocol of his culture.

“In America, we are often quick to judge other cultures’ way of doing things. But when you’re there conversing with the people, you realize that these cultural differences are what make the world such an interesting place.”

The class may appear the same, but the students who have returned to the classroom in Glenside will forever be transformed. Friendships have been forged. Discoveries have been made.

“It’s just different,” says Kupstas. “We have a different mindset on foreign affairs because we’ve been there. Looking at the Palestinian and Israeli conflict is just completely different now that we’ve met people from both sides of that conflict… . The world would be so boring if everyone was the same. Luckily, we live in a very diverse world with people who love to share their cultures with outsiders. What I find most interesting about traveling to new places is experiencing first hand a different approach to living. Who am I to say that we Americans are doing everything right? If we don’t go out into the world and immerse ourselves in new cultures, how will we know any different?”