My experience with the Siraj Center for Holy Land Studies began when the director of the stateside non-profit agency I work with, Playgrounds for Palestine, brought the program to my attention. I'm in the West Bank to explore potential playground build sites and initiate builds at Osh Ghorab Park and at the Bet Jala Arab Orthodox Club.
I often travel abroad for work and study and was prepared for the usual complications of making contacts, finding a place to stay, and spending countless hours trying to find the right people to show me the historical sights and features around my new home. Siraj remediated all of these impediments. George Rishmawi and the staff at the Siraj Center immediately began setting up contacts to help with my playground project. Furthermore, they recommended that I spend my time volunteering at a local organization beyond the scope of my normal work. I mentioned that I am certified emergency medical technician. Mr. Rishmawi went out of his way to get me an interview with the volunteer coordinator and public affairs director at the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in Ramallah. I received a placement at the Bethlehem Red Crescent working with an ambulance crew. Working with the medics at the Red Crescent provided me with a means of meeting people far outside the normal scope of the expatriate experience.
Immediately upon my arrival in Bethlehem, the staff at the Siraj Center welcomed me to my new family - the Siraj family - with a shared meal and introductions. I was immediately impressed by their professionalism as well as their honest desire to integrate me into the community of Beit Sahour without delay. I was introduced to my host family, the Salsas, and discovered another world of cultural exposure opened before me. The two months I spent living with the Salsas - eating together, meeting their friends and extended family - has provided me with insight and an understanding of the local culture that is oftentimes precious and rare for Westerners traveling abroad.
The guides and drivers provided by Siraj are of the highest caliber - university educated historians and teachers - who themselves live in the Bethlehem area and can oftentimes take a simple tour of a historical site far beyond the bounds of a textbook experience. By introducing the Siraj students to local business-owners, laborers, educators and others, they succeed in making relevant historical locations that date back many thousands of years. Any tour guide can explain the various architectural, archaeological and cultural traditions associated with, for example, the Church of the Nativity. Siraj guides introduce their students to the church's relevance to the people of Bethlehem today. They discuss the intricacies, difficulties, and celebrations that face the population charged with caring for this ancient structure. The teachers and guides from Siraj sought to bring these incredible sights into a contemporary context - something invaluable for a student of the 21st century.
Finally, I would like to emphasize that the Siraj Center also provided me with something I have rarely found with organizations that provide similar services. It provided flexibility. Siraj creates a full, meaningful itinerary for its students without locking them into courses, tours or volunteer experiences that aren't interesting or engaging for each student. The Siraj coordinators were constantly engaged in discussion with each student regarding their new interests. I remember - at one point I wanted to deviate from the program to visit a potential build site north of Jenin. The director of Siraj, George Rishmawi, arranged the travel and even accompanied me up to Jenin, showing me the sites along the way. I was surprised and touched by his commitment to my West Bank experience - to go so far out of his way to make sure that I was able to visit the places I wanted to. This personal attention to each student is the primary reason I recommend Siraj to my peers and coworkers back in the U.S. Every Siraj student lives, works, and learns in the Holy Land, but the staff at Siraj guarantees that this is not a homogeneous, boxed, cookie-cutter experience. Everyone here seems to have their own unique Siraj experience, whether it is for a week, a month, or a summer.
I will continue to recommend Siraj to students I meet here in Palestine, as well as my peers back home. I have accomplished my goals here in the West Bank - new doors have been opened to me - and I cannot wait to begin planning my return to my new family and friends here in Beit Sahour.
Nathan Dannison, Grand Rapids, Michigan.