The sun’s rays filter through the clouds over Shepherds’ Field near Bethlehem. The bleating of sheep and the occasional clanking of a goat’s bell fill the morning air as a modern-day Bedouin leads his flock over the rocky hill. The sloping field, looking much the same today as it did anciently when angels appeared to shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth, drops down into a valley with steep hills on either side. The hills, terraced with limestone, take on a momentary glow in the intermittent sunlight. Bethlehem, the Savior’s birthplace, sits atop the hill on the right—gleaming a lustrous white, even through the soft, shifting morning haze.
Gradually, the valleys and hills surrounding Shepherds’ Field are filled with the strains of “The Lord Is My Shepherd,” sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. “The Lord is my Shepherd; no want shall I know. I feed in green pastures; safefolded I rest.” After the final words of the hymn, “Oh, what shall I ask of thy providence more?” rise strong and clear through the air, the choir stops singing. To everyone’s surprise, the sound continues as a long, lingering echo rolls through the valley and rebounds from hill to hill. The music of the Tabernacle Choir has filled the land, and in turn, it seems that the land is reluctant to let it go.
From 26 December 1992 to 6 January 1993, the Tabernacle Choir filled the Holy Land with music—with concerts in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. And the echoes continued as the concerts were broadcast live on Israeli television and radio. Audience reactions and media reviews confirmed that the people were reluctant to let the music go.
The centerpiece of the Tabernacle Choir’s trip to Israel was the performance of the Berlioz Requiem Mass opus 5 with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra during its Liturgica 92 concert series. This series, held in December and January each year, features performances of significant Christian choral or orchestral works.
Throughout the Tabernacle Choir’s tour, audience reactions were the best indication of the success of the tour. Israel is a country of many musicians, but it is common knowledge that the nation’s sophisticated and educated audiences typically leave immediately after a concert. Following the Berlioz Requiem, the audience reacted to the sheer power and energy of this great music with applause in unison—the call for an encore—for more than five minutes.
Jerusalem’s longtime mayor, Teddy Kollek, said that the Tabernacle Choir’s concerts represented “bridge-building” and that music was “an important way to speak peace and brotherhood.”
The most dramatic audience reactions to the choir’s music, however, were at the a cappella concerts, where the choir sang a mixed repertoire of their general fare from Rachmaninoff to African-American spirituals. These concerts began with the audience standing as the choir sang “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem. The music continued to draw audiences in as the choir moved through the first half of the concert, with especially tender audience responses to the combination of “By the Waters of Babylon,” followed by “Come, Come, Ye Saints.”
During the lively second half of these concerts, some members of the audiences began to lean forward in their seats. When the choir sang “Now Shout!” with the words “Clap your hands,” part of the audience began to clap with the music. Slight grins grew into wide smiles. Applause grew louder with each succeeding number. By the final number, “Cindy,” with its syncopated rhythm, people in the audiences were tapping their feet, slapping their legs, or nodding their heads in time with the music. The organists and percussionist added the sounds of clopping horses, ringing bells, and a tambourine as the choir clapped and sang, “Get along home, little Cindy; I’ll marry you someday.” The smiles remained as the audiences applauded, some with their hands held high, until finally they were again clapping in unison.
Then the encores began. As the first few notes of the haunting “Jerusalem of Gold” drifted through the concert hall, the audiences gasped, then applauded as the male soloist began to sing in Hebrew. It was easy to feel the audiences’ strong emotional attachment to this song. A woman put her hand over her mouth in ecstasy. A man with a stern face removed his glasses and wept openly. As the song continued, many in the audiences silently mouthed the words with the choir, and others wiped tears from their cheeks.
When the song ended, choir director Jerold Ottley directed attention to the composer of “Jerusalem of Gold,” Naomi Shemer, who was in the audience in Jerusalem and also in Tel Aviv. As she rose, the audiences gave her a standing ovation. They were responding to a song that had won their hearts during the 1967 Six-Day War. Based on the legend of a sheikh who gave his wife a miniature model of the city of Jerusalem in gold, the song won a 1967 contest. Constantly on the airwaves and in the hearts of the people during the war, the song became a rallying point for Israeli soldiers and citizens alike as they reentered the previously closed areas of their once-divided city.
The applause in unison started again, and the choir began to sing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Near the end of the hymn, the house lights came up, and the audiences began clapping in rhythm with the music until the applause drowned out the end of the song and everyone in the audiences stood up.
As the choir began their traditional final encore, “God Be with You,” the audiences remained standing, and many wiped tears from their eyes.
“Music transcends all barriers,” said Robert Cundick, host at the Jerusalem Center, in an interview printed in the Jerusalem Post. “Song is the building block to a colossal experience with the land of Israel.”
This proved to be true at all of the Tabernacle Choir concerts. In each concert, for one synergistic moment, an audience was transformed into something higher than they had been as individuals. The music of the choir wove its sounds with the emotions and memories of each listener, bonding them together into one great unit. And for that brief moment, they were suspended together in peace, held in place by the universal language of music.
Applause and house lights gradually allowed reluctant audiences to leave. As they came down the stairs from the balcony or entered the lobby from the main floor, some glowed in silence as they left the building. Others gathered in groups and talked excitedly to one another, seemingly everyone speaking at the same time.
“There are not words, there will never be words. It has been the most transcending experience of my life.”
“I felt I was not breathing air. I felt I was breathing music.”
“I’ve just spent two hours in heaven. Our whole kibbutz rented a bus and came down. We couldn’t let the Tabernacle Choir pass by and not hear them.”
“You sing with the love of God.”
“In this land of struggles, we are all craving peace. With your choir and your music, you are bringing us a little bit of peace. It is welcome.”
“It was beautiful. It was magnificent. It was velvet.”
“The heavens were open, the angels were singing.”
“I came in feeling poor and weak in spirit and left feeling strong. You stirred something inside me I have not felt for a long time.”
“I sat next to God tonight.”
Elder James E. Faust of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Ruth, traveled with the 588 members of the choir, their spouses, and the choir staff in Israel. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Seventy, currently serving as area president of the Europe North Area, and his wife, Pat, joined the choir in Jerusalem. Their presence and leadership contributed to the spiritual dimension of the choir’s tour in Israel.
The spiritual growth that took place in the hearts of the choir members is an important part of the story of this religious odyssey. “This visit had deep religious significance to us,” says choir president Wendell M. Smoot, “because we viewed our spiritual roots; our Savior was born, lived, and was crucified there. These sites evoked great emotion in us.” In fact, many choir members discovered that “coming unto Christ” was more than a pilgrimage to the Holy Land; it was a journey of the spirit.
For the choir and their guests, that journey of the spirit began on December 27, shortly after their arrival in Israel, as they attended a sacrament meeting at the Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center. They saw Jerusalem at night as they sat in the center’s auditorium, with its glass walls on three sides. Before them spread a full view of many of the places where Jesus walked—from the road to Bethlehem on the left, to the area of Gethsemane on the right. Every facet of the meeting was filled with a strong spirit—from the opening prayer and partaking of the sacrament, to the talks by Truman Madsen, director of the Jerusalem Center; Ann Madsen, a faculty member; and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland.
“I helped set up the sacrament trays,” says Stephen Bardsley, a choir member. “I was asked to bless the bread. How can I express in words the tender feelings that swelled up in my soul? I wept every time I thought about the singular privilege of blessing the sacrament as the Savior had done so many years ago near here. As I prayed, each word was sweet as it flowed slowly out of my mouth. To speak his sacred name and to plead to Heavenly Father to bless the bread filled me with great emotion.”
After the sacrament, Brother Madsen spoke. “We dreamed it, we hoped it, and now it is happening,” he said of the choir’s visit. “The Lord has called you here.”
Elder Holland told the story of Orson Hyde’s dedication of this land for the return of the Jews as he stood on the Mount of Olives on 24 October 1841. “You are making memories and history for a dispensation,” he said. “I testify of that.”
Another spiritual highlight came two days later in Haifa in the form of an apostolic blessing. The physical and professional demands had been overwhelming for everyone involved with the tour. The following comments of a choir member are representative of similar stresses experienced by others: “Three months of arduous rehearsals, several performances, a dozen broadcasts, personal preparations for the tour, family Christmas activities, and the death of my mother had taken their toll. When I boarded the plane on December 26, I was utterly exhausted. That’s no way to begin a choir tour.” Then in the first two days after arriving in Israel, the choir had four major rehearsals, including three rehearsals of the Berlioz Requiem (nearly an hour and a half long) and a rehearsal and a performance of the a cappella concert.
Before the choir’s first concert in Haifa, Elder James E. Faust pronounced a blessing upon the group. He blessed them that their bodies would be renewed and that they would have the strength to perform.
“I could physically feel the strength gradually come into me,” says choir member Toni Davis. “By the time we were on the stage, we were there in power. I believe that after you do all you can do, the Lord fills in the rest. When I returned to the hotel, I dropped to my knees and gave thanks to the Lord for the strength—not just the spiritual, but also the physical.”
A week later, during a sacrament meeting in Tiberias near the Sea of Galilee, Elder Faust testified of the divinity of the work in which the choir was engaged and pronounced a second apostolic blessing upon them. Echoing the words of Helaman 10:4–5 [Hel. 10:4–5], Elder Faust’s blessing emphasized the Lord’s promise that “because thou hast done this with such unwearyingness, behold, I will bless thee forever; and I will make thee mighty in word and in deed.”
Though the choir members spent most of their time in rehearsals, concerts, and filming for a television special to be aired this year, the spiritual experiences continued.
One special moment for the choir occurred December 28 during a rehearsal at the Jerusalem Center, the first rehearsal with David Shallon, director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. The choir sat facing the draped front wall of glass in the auditorium, and Mr. Shallon had his back to the windows as he worked with the choir. Partway through the rehearsal, someone pulled open the drapes, giving the choir a view of the old city in the daylight. As Mr. Shallon turned to look, he gave an audible gasp and paused for a moment with his hands together under his chin as he and the choir absorbed the wondrous view. It was a stirring moment for both choir and director.
During the concerts, the thrill of singing the Berlioz Requiem and the a cappella concerts filled members of the choir with great emotion and joy. But for at least one choir member, Michael McOmber, singing in Israel had powerful personal meaning.
“I sang to Jews, Moslems, Christians, and to my great-grandfather’s brother, John Alexander Clark,” he says. Elder John Clark, who had been called to the Turkish mission in 1894, died of smallpox in 1895 at Haifa, in present-day Israel. He was one of two missionaries buried there who, it seemed, had died in vain. In modern times, however, these graves served as evidence of the Church’s prior presence in Israel and were helpful in its gaining approval for the Jerusalem Center to be built.
“We sang a moving number based on a text from Psalm 137,” [Ps. 137] says Michael, “‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered thee, O Zion,’ I stood and wept. The unanticipated sense of irony gently overwhelmed me as I thought of my ancestor John: ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ the Psalmist had said of captive Israel. Yet I felt hauntingly at home here, singing the Lord’s song to my ancestor. I had come to sing a requiem in memoriam: I shall never forget thee, O Jerusalem, nor John Alexander Clark.”
Singing “By the Waters of Babylon” in Israel also took on new spiritual meaning for many other choir members. “In Haifa, we could hardly sing ‘By the Waters of Babylon’ because the Spirit was so strong and so many people were crying,” says one choir member. “It was an incredible experience. When we sang ‘Come, Come, Ye Saints,’ I realized that these words applied to the Jewish people, too, and I felt a bond with them.”
For many choir members and leaders, the Spirit was strongest as the choir gathered at sites for the filming of the television special. Since the sites were closed to the public during the filming, the choir enjoyed some privacy while they performed as a group.
“Today the choir sang ‘How Great Thou Art’ from the majestic heights of Dominus Flevit, near where Jesus wept over Jerusalem prior to his triumphal entry,” wrote Ken Wilks in his journal. “Tears filled my eyes as I thought of my ancestors who are buried in the cemetery next to the little country church in Alabama. I felt so grateful to Christ for providing the blessings of the temple to bring families together.”
Before filming at the Mount of Beatitudes, the choir boarded two boats at Tiberias and crossed the Sea of Galilee. About halfway across the sea, which can give rise to sudden storms as it did the night Christ calmed the waters, the boats stopped, a prayer was offered, and the choir and others sang “Master, the Tempest Is Raging.”
“I really felt the Spirit when we stopped out on the Sea of Galilee,” says one choir member. “I’ve really never felt it that strongly before.”
Complications caused the choir to arrive late at the Mount of Beatitudes, with only about an hour of daylight left. By then the sky was slightly overcast as the sun began to set over the Sea of Galilee. Several observers noticed that each time the crews began to film the choir, the sun came out from behind a long, narrow cloud and provided full, warm sunlight—an added testimony of the Lord’s hand in staying the weather for each filming. In fact, the weather was dry and sunny for nearly every day of the choir’s visit. It rained only once, and that was during the night.
At Shepherds’ Field, the choir entered the fenced area of the field near where the angels appeared to be shepherds. Peter Vasko, one of the Franciscan priests who cares for the area, visited the choir during the filming and told them, “I granted you permission to sing here because I recognize you as a witness for Christ.”
“I was overwhelmed when I heard the echo of our singing at Shepherds’ Field,” says Carter Knapp. “‘Angels we have heard on high … , And the mountains in reply Echoing their joyous strains.’ I’ll never sing those words again without remembering this experience and the echo.”
But the strongest spiritual feelings came for many at the Garden Tomb.
“The choir was placed in an area in front of the Garden Tomb to do the filming,” says choir member Fay Mason. “I was standing directly in front of the empty tomb. The music had been prerecorded, but on the last run-through, Jerold Ottley allowed us to sing `When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’ in full voice. During this song, I felt the Spirit of the Lord very near. For a moment I felt that if I reached out, he would put his hand in mine.”
“I have gained a much greater understanding of and love for my Savior,” says choir member Tom Porter. “He lives! For, as another song tells, ‘I walked today where Jesus walked, and felt his presence there.’ We were all overwhelmed by the last few lines of the song [ “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”] as we faced the empty tomb. ‘Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all!’ My hope is that I can continue with this change in my life, for I am truly a different person for coming to this land.”
All those on the Tabernacle Choir tour signed a non-proselyting agreement, as do all those who attend the BYU Jerusalem Center. Elder Faust explains the reason for this agreement: “Incident to the acquisition of the land for the Jerusalem Center, when we entered into negotiations for that lease, we also entered into an agreement not to proselyte. We prefer to call this a covenant because that word reflects our serious commitment to honoring this agreement. One day as we were discussing this with Mayor Kollek, he reminded us that the world lost six million Jews in the Holocaust. ‘We just can’t afford to lost one more Jew,’ he said.”
Choir members, spouses, and staff meticulously honored this agreement, yet everyone still found plenty to talk about as they visited with the people of Israel. Many gave the people they met a previously approved tape of some of the popular music of the Tabernacle Choir, appropriate for the Israeli people because there were no references to Christ. “We didn’t proselyte. We spoke to them with music,” said one choir member. “We left them our love,” said another.
The generous action of a choir member’s spouse brought lasting results. Four choir members and two spouses had taken a taxi to the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Centre in Kadesh to see the famous Chagall windows portraying the Twelve Tribes of Israel. “All of Jerusalem is talking about your choir,” said Yocheved, the receptionist. But when asked if she would be attending the final concert that night, she stammered that “complications” would not allow it.
After the six left, they realized that the “complications” meant that she did not have the money for a ticket. Quickly, they returned, and one of the spouses gave her his concert ticket. Her joyful response was spontaneous, and during the concert that evening, she was moved to tears. She embraced each of her new friends after the concert and said, “I didn’t have any way to repay you for your kindness. I did not even know your names, so today I planted a tree at the Hadassah Hospital in the name of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It will continue to live and grow, and the next time you come to Jerusalem, you can see your tree. Your being here has brought us joy and peace.”
Kay Lynn Wakefield learned an important lesson from a woman who worked at the Garden Tomb. “As we were hurrying along,” says Sister Wakefield, “the sounds of a clear soprano voice filled the air. I felt so drawn to the ethereal sound that I left the crowd and went to find out where it was coming from. And then I saw her! A little English lady sweeping one of the paths in the garden.
“As I visited with her, she expressed to me the joy she feels each day as she sweeps the paths at the Garden Tomb, often singing all the way. I told her that the Tabernacle Choir was going to sing in the Garden Tomb that day. Her eyes filled with tears, and she said, ‘Yes, I know, and I feel so privileged to be here today to hear them.’ Then I embraced her and left to again join the crowd. Once again I had been reminded not to be so intent on reaching the final destination that I forget to enjoy the journey.”
When one choir member visited an olivewood shop in Bethlehem, she gave the shopkeeper a tape of the Tabernacle Choir. He put it on immediately. In a few minutes, he came running out onto the street after the choir member, shouting with joy, “Listen to what your music has done to my store!”
And so the music of the Tabernacle Choir filled Israel for ten short days, and in turn, Israel seemed reluctant to let the music go. Like the lingering echo at Shepherds’ Field, the music of the choir continues to be heard in homes throughout the land as families play tapes of the choir and listen to radio and television rebroadcasts.
As Elder Faust told the choir at the sacrament meeting in Tiberias, “The end of the good which you have done will never come.”
A large, gnarled olive tree stands in the sunlight near the entrance of Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. The tree’s dark, twisted limbs provide a stark contrast to the glistening white stone of the center. Though the tree looks dead compared to the green grass at its base, it is not. A closer look at the 800-year-old tree, moved here from Galilee, reveals shoots coming out of its weathered trunk. Olive trees, whose roots can live for centuries, are among the most enduring of plants, and this one serves as a reminder to those who see it that when we sink our roots deep into the truths taught by the Savior, we can be nourished by the gospel and reach toward eternal life.
The Jerusalem Center, overlooking the Old City, is located on the southernmost part of Mount Scopus, a northern extension of the Mount of Olives. The 11,146-square-meter buildings sits on 1.8 hectares. Its seven levels span a steep 30.5-meter drop and include classrooms, a library, a multipurpose room, a cafeteria and dining room, two auditoriums, and dormitory rooms for 175 students.
The architectural message of this building is light and peace. Visitors approaching the building first enter a secluded garden with fountains and the peaceful sound of running water, then move into a long, high gallery area filled with reflected light and warmth. Marble, teakwood, and Jerusalem stone cover most of the surfaces. Before entering the upper 330-seat auditorium, visitors pass through the filtered light of the trellised archways that surround the auditorium. Since three of the four walls of the auditorium are glass, the room is filled with light. Unlike any other architecture in Jerusalem, this windowed auditorium invites in the view of the old city of Jerusalem. At night, when viewed from across the valley, the lighted building with its layers of arched windows looks like a lantern on the hill.
After the building was completed, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, then president of Brigham Young University, took Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem, on a tour of the building. For forty-five minutes, Mayor Kollek was virtually silent as he walked through the center. Finally he said, “You have taken the most beautiful piece of property we could have given you and have done more with it than I thought possible. I consider it the most beautiful building built in Jerusalem in recent years.”
Mayor Kollek, a strong advocate of a pluralistic society in Jerusalem, put his political career on the line over and over again during the construction of the center. He said on 16 February 1992, when he invited the Tabernacle Choir to Israel, “Of all the struggles during my twenty-five years as mayor of Jerusalem, the one concerning the BYU—Mount Scopus campus was perhaps the most difficult and certainly among the most important. This was not a struggle for the Mormons but rather a struggle for tolerance in a city that should set an example to the world—a city in which everyone may pray to his God in his way without restriction. How could we Jews, who were cut off from our holy places for centuries, refuse the right of others to establish a legitimate educational institution and place of worship in Jerusalem?”
Today, Brigham Young University students can study at the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. It is, indeed, a light on a hill for those students, who come to gain knowledge and sink their spiritual roots deep into the enduring truths of the gospel and life of Christ. Architecturally, it is also a light on a hill as its arched presence sits high on Mount Scopus and whispers peace to the city below.