Theo Daniel woke up at about 8 a.m. on Oct. 7. Boaz Leberman, Student & Residential Life Manager at the University of Notre Dame at Tantur, had run into his apartment to wake up his roommates and him. They needed to get to the bomb shelter immediately.
Theo threw on his shoes and jogged to the shelter as an explosion sounded in the background. Theo, his fellow students in the Jerusalem study abroad program and university staff were just miles away from Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel that morning. Their morning in the bomb shelter began a days-long effort to keep the cohort safe until they could be safely evacuated out of Israel.
Theo Daniel is a junior studying philosophy and global affairs. He is one of the six students who were studying abroad this semester in the Jerusalem Global Gateway Undergraduate Program (JGG). The cohort arrived on Aug. 27 for a semester in one of the world’s most culturally diverse areas.
“I think layered would be the best word for it, in a literal sense,” Theo tells me. “As different people and different empires kind of came into Jerusalem. They just built on top of each other … It’s always a rendezvous of history when you’re walking around so you feel like ‘Dang, I’m in a storied place.’”
The cohort studied at the University of Notre Dame at Tantur, which has a fantastic view of Jerusalem to the north and Bethlehem to the south. To the east is a just barely visible line of mountains on the horizon, the nation of Jordan. The cohort's first month in Jerusalem was filled with first classes through the JGG and excursions to sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Students are required to take courses at Tantur and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and they’re also encouraged to take classes at Bethlehem University. The three campuses work together in an effort to expose students to the unique cultural differences of these biblical lands.
Before war broke out, Theo was focused on exploring the “top layer” of Jerusalem. “A lot of people are just growing up and living there, it’s their regular home city,” he says. “To me, it’s a crazy idea because they are a part of that history, they’re just the top layer.”
Theo’s favorite moments in “the top layer” were browsing the Mahane Yehuda Market, speaking with an Islamic scholar in his prayer room in the Old City and walking near Ein Karem, a village south of Jerusalem where they had lunch with some bleating goats as company.
He never felt unsafe in Jerusalem, but as a part of their orientation, the students were shown Tantur’s bomb shelter located underground. Bomb shelters are a common safety measure in many buildings in Israel — Tantur recognized the need for precaution but had hoped to never use them.
That all changed on Oct. 7.
When Theo woke up, he could hear the sirens but didn’t know exactly what the noise meant. According to ABC News, “An estimated 2,200 rockets were fired toward southern and central Israel, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, by the Hamas militants.” Leberman told him and his roommates that the sirens weren’t a drill and that they needed to get to the shelter. That morning, the cohort spent the first few hours of the day underground with other members of the Tantur community.
Tantur is home not just to Notre Dame’s undergraduate study abroad cohort, but also to graduate students conducting research, ministry leaders on sabbatical, Palestinian students who are learning to code and others who use the site for research, not to mention the many staff employed by the university.
Americans, Israelis and Palestinians all sheltered together.
By mid-morning, the JGG cohort was able to leave the shelter to retrieve some things from their apartments. They grabbed snacks and a movie projector from their apartment. Theo picked up his backpack, thinking he might do some homework. But after retrieving a few belongings, the cohort spent the rest of the day near the shelter. They would run in when the sirens went off but take a breather outside every once in a while. Theo says that at some point, he got tired of going back and forth and just stayed in the shelter for a few hours.
The cohort watched “The Terminal” together in the shelter to take their mind off things. “It was a very strange dynamic to try and distract from the situation a bit,” Theo says.
As they waited, they could hear the impacts of the rockets. It was only later that Theo realized they were probably hearing more of the missiles that were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system.
He also realized that he wasn’t gaining much by going on X, formerly known as Twitter, to look for information, so he stayed off it for most of the day.
By the afternoon in Jerusalem, most of the students' parents had woken up to the news of the invasion. Theo’s parents were frantic when they first made contact with him, but Theo reassured them that he was safe as it had been hours since a rocket had been near Tantur. Before he hung up with his family, they prayed together over the phone.
At 9:30 p.m. that Saturday, the group gathered with Leberman and Gabriel “Gabi” Mitchell, director of undergraduate studies at Tantur, and other Notre Dame International Staff and Campus Security officials via Zoom. After assessing the situation, the staff made the decision to relocate the cohort to the London Global Gateway. According to Mike Seamon, vice president for Campus Safety and University Operations, “For this particular situation, leadership from throughout the University, including the executive offices (President, Provost and Executive Vice President), worked together to ensure our students were safe.”
The Zoom meeting ended, and the students were instructed to pack their bags and be ready to leave with short notice. With their classes canceled for the week, the cohort stayed up late with each other, doing anything to take their mind off the situation — talking, doing laundry, packing.
Theo can’t really remember much of Sunday and Monday — just that he would sit and think and walk around the campus. He started to become a bit desensitized to what was happening, but the sirens would put him back on alert. Reflecting on a moment when the group had to briefly seek shelter again, Theo says, “by that point, we were almost used to it … In some sense, it wasn’t that surprising … but I think spending all day in preparation for fight or flight probably wasn’t the healthiest.”
On Monday night, the group had their second meeting with university administrators, both from Notre Dame’s main campus and the campus at Tantur, to go over the evacuation plan. The cohort had originally flown into Israel via the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. After the invasion, about 90% of major airline companies suspended flights due to concerns that the nearby rocket launches would interfere with safe travel.
The evacuation plan for the cohort was to drive north from Jerusalem, going around the West Bank and crossing into Jordan. From the border crossing, the group would travel down to Amman, the capital of Jordan, where the students would spend the night before flying out to London the next day.
It’s more than a five-hour drive from Tantur to Amman if you drive north around the West Bank. A security team picked up the students and David Turjman, program coordinator at Tantur, to drive them to the border. The university hired what Theo refers to as “private security” and “dudes with polos” to help transport them.
Once in Jordan, a second team transported them from the border to their Hilton Hotel in Amman. “It was a big hotel, pretty luxury, definitely the nicest hotel I’ve stayed in,” Theo says. After dinner, Theo called his parents, journaled and went to bed. The cohort had to leave by 7 a.m. the next day for their Royal Jordanian Air flight to London-Heathrow.
Turjman had tried to lift the cohort’s spirits by taking a photo. The group found it funny to try to stop to fit everyone in as people walked in front of the camera.
It was “a fun, awkward pic,” Theo says.
The group landed in London late on the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 11, and were greeted by staff from the university’s London Global Gateway. The JGG students arrived at Conway Hall, the London program’s residential building, just three days before the London cohort went on fall break. As a result, many of the building’s residents had already left for their vacation. Conway Hall, where the JGG is now staying for the rest of the semester, was mostly empty their first week there.
“I’m very grateful for how Notre Dame provided for the transition,” Theo says. “It’s something you don’t forget, but having two places, two gateways in a single semester … I’m grateful for that, honestly.”
This extraordinary effort was a result of “a number of strategic partnerships with law enforcement organizations and private companies that enable us to monitor the environment at all of our facilities,” according to Seamon.
“For safety reasons, we cannot discuss the university’s security protocols or the details of the decision-making process to relocate the students from Tantur to London. What we can say is that the university’s top priority is to keep our students and community safe at every location, not only here in South Bend but around the world. It is core to what we do,” he said.
Notre Dame isn’t the only institution with programs in Israel. Peer institutions such as American University, UCLA and Princeton University also have established programs.
Notre Dame worked to share information with other programs that had students studying in the Holy Land. Michael Pippinger, vice president and associate provost for internationalization said, "Notre Dame International leadership keeps in close contact with counterparts at peer institutions sharing information and reviewing the viability of study abroad and global faculty research in regions of conflict, in line with the best practices and highest standards in global education."
As of Nov. 26, 2023, the Jerusalem Global Gateway’s summer program for 2024 was still open for new applicants, although the Spring 2024 undergraduate semester was canceled. The University is still assessing the situation in Israel and expects to make a decision on the summer program soon.
The University of Notre Dame at Tantur “still ha[s] employees present who are keeping the facility and operations running during this difficult time,” said university spokesperson Sue Ryan. “We continue to function and pursue our mission in Jerusalem.”
At this point in our interview, I asked Theo about his earlier comment on the “layers of Jerusalem.” How does he feel that he is now a part of the top layer of history?
Theo leans back in his chair and looks to the side. He puts his hands on his head and sighs as he thinks. After a few seconds, he responds.
“I did think a bit about how these events will be remembered in the future. What significance they'd have, where they'd be in the narrative,” he says. “When you say that, it makes me think back to the people that have constituted all those layers before, and how they were just walking around, living their lives under whatever empire happened to control Jerusalem at the moment. To an extent, that’s what I was doing … Learning, seeing, and kind of just living my life.”
He recognizes that he’s not a resident the way others are, even the staff the university employs there. But he’s fascinated by the city of Jerusalem.
Theo, and his six peers, will spend the rest of the semester in London before coming back to the U.S. for Christmas Break. But, he’s still connected to his time in Jerusalem. Although their Bethlehem University classes were discontinued, the students are taking their classes through Hebrew University online.
“The kind of conviction I’ve come at it with and that I’m grateful for,” Theo says, “is that I don’t consider any portion of this experience over the last several weeks accidental. I don’t know to what extent others may share that conviction.”
Theo hopes to return to Jerusalem at some point, when it’s safe. He says, “I don’t expect [that my time abroad] will be the last time I’m there.”