For thousands of years, Jerusalem has held unparalleled significance in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. A chance to learn more about this fascinating city — site of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Jewish Temples and Jesus’ Tomb — is a big draw for students who sign up for Jerusalem: Holy City of Conflict and Desire, a First-Year Interest Group.

Professor of Jewish Studies Rachel Brenner, who teaches the main seminar course, places the city of Jerusalem squarely at the center of an exploration of how three major monotheistic religions intersect — and divide.

In the course, Brenner (who also teaches a 300-level Jewish Studies class on Jerusalem each spring) delves into the long history of conflicts and wars by which the religions have sought to gain control of Jerusalem. She also emphasizes discussing current events in the region, so students understand how tensions continue to play out. 

“The course is really talking about how religions affect or shape the political situation — and vice versa,” she says. “It’s so connected.” 

While students don’t travel to Jerusalem, they do take a field trip to Milwaukee to visit the Jewish Museum, a mosque and a church. 

Hilary Miller, a Milwaukee native who’s pursuing degrees in political science and history and a certificate in Jewish Studies; Mishal Shah, an international studies major from Lahore, Pakistan; and Michael Bellart, a history and political science major from Muskego, Wisconsin, all say the course taught them about the city, but also about themselves and each other.

Hilary Miller, Michael Bellart and Mishal Shah meet on Bascom Hill. (Photo by Sarah Morton, College of Letters & Science)

What were your expectations going into the Jerusalem course? 

Hilary: I was excited to take this class in a small-group setting, where conversation would be more intimate and exploratory. Having been raised Jewish, I was excited to share my religious and cultural insight to the class as well as to learn from my peers of their identities and backgrounds.

Did you focus more on the history of the city, or what Jerusalem is like today? 

Michael: We talked about current events a lot. Because the course was geared toward topics in the Middle East, we would use our historical knowledge of the region to make connections to modern events taking place in the Middle East.

What were the highlights of the course for you?

Mishal: We got to learn about all three monotheistic religions! Coming from Pakistan, I had not had an opportunity to study all three religions in a class that had students from each faith sharing their personal beliefs as well. It reminded me about how similar we are, although we are raised poles apart.

Hilary: I appreciated how the course was taught very fairly. Often, it is easy to present this highly sensitive information with bias. I truly feel as though I gained a holistic understanding of the historical underpinnings and contemporary issues that surround the conflict over Jerusalem.

How did having a background in one of the religions covered in the course affect your experience?

Michael: I feel like I assumed the role of the “Catholic,” and it was awesome to talk to Professor Brenner about Christianity’s historical interactions with both Islam and Judaism. She was very respectful when it came to topics of controversy concerning Judeo-Christian relations, and that made me only want to learn more about Judaism and her beliefs. 

What surprised you the most?

Mishal: At first, I thought it would be tough doing justice in representing a “Muslim” point of view. But I soon discovered that I was lucky to be able to inform my fellow peers about the traditions I have grown up. The pleasure I received in seeing people’s views about Islam being reformed in an age when Muslims are not seen in a very positive light is an experience that has shaped me forever.