For most people, Israel is a place seen on television, a war-torn controversy in the Middle East.
For Joel Reemtsma of Kenai, Israel was home for three months.
The Kenai Central High School graduate spent the second semester of his sophomore year in college studying just 15 minutes from Jerusalem -- the heart of religious history and modern conflict.
"I've wanted to go to Israel since I was little," Reemtsma said. "My dad's a pastor, so I was raised with Bible stories."
And, he added, the idea of travel and adventure called to him.
Reemtsma has spent the last two years studying an eclectic mix of topics at Cedar College in Ohio. Interested in everything from history and philosophy to creative writing, Spanish and biblical studies, Reemtsma said the study abroad program through Israel Bible Exchange made sense.
His classes in Israel included "The Land and the Bible," "Jewish Thought and Culture," "History of the Modern State of Israel," "Geographical Area Studies: Asia Minor," and "The Holocaust."
"The classes fit in well there," he said. They also provided up-close-and-personal lessons in the subjects at hand.
"The Land and the Bible" offered weekly field trips to sites such as the Red Sea and the Syrian border.
The geography class provided a week-long tour of Turkey and a walk through the New Testament book of Acts.
"It really made me feel like I'm a part of history," he said. "I think in America, you sometimes feel dropped into culture, you don't understand how man got here. The history of the Middle East is the history of man up to the Middle Ages."
The Holocaust class included a trip to Yad VaShem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.
"It was not so much a learning experience as a chance to reflect on what had happened, or more appropriately, how this could have happened," Reemtsma wrote in an e-mail to family and friends. "For me, perhaps the most ominous thing about the whole affair, the mass murder of millions of innocents, was tracing the chain of ideas and events that logically concluded in genocide. Watching what was arguably the most civilized, educated nation on earth transform itself into a people capable of atrocious crimes against humanity ... That is truly frightening.
"The oddest part about the whole Yad VaShem visit was emerging from the dark corridors of the museum into the bright sunlight, hearing the birds sing in the background, and trying to convince oneself that such monstrous evil really exists. The mind can acknowledge the possibility, but it cannot understand what it IS."
In the midst of the history, Reemtsma also saw first-hand the reality of modern-day atrocities in the Holy Land.
"I didn't have a perspective before. Because of my background, I would have said I support Israel, but I couldn't back that up," he said. "Knowing the history, I feel I can pretty confidently support Israel. They're not perfect, and the Palestinians are victims. But they're victims of their own leadership. It's a hard situation."
Reemtsma also recalled visiting the home of a Muslim shopkeeper, whose uncle was the religious authority for the country of Jordan.
"The man was a good father, a nice man," Reemtsma said. "There are reasonable people on both sides. The problem is getting that into leadership."
Despite the ongoing conflicts in the area, Reemtsma said he felt comfortable in Israel.
"Everyone's parents were really worried," he joked. "But, like I kept telling my parents, I'm 19. You're invincible until the day you turn 20, so I'm all right."
Turning serious, Reemtsma added that the professors knew the area well enough to keep students away from trouble spots.
"It's really eye-opening that Israelis live with this every day. I didn't feel I had a right to be afraid. I was in and then out. They carry on lives just like ours in the shadow of evil."
And the trip also provided plenty of time for fun.
"One day, we hiked the Nachal Dorga canyon," Reemtsma recalled.
The eight-hour hike starts at the top of the canyon and follows a water outlet down to the Dead Sea. The hikers, watching carefully for flash floods that sometimes fill the canyon, used iron spikes to lower themselves down and dropped into pools to swim parts of the trail.
"The land itself is amazing. There's desert, jungle, beaches, mountains and a ski resort," Reemtsma said of the entire Israel landscape. "It's a really great place to visit. Not what you'd think of watching CNN."
Reemtsma said it is great to be back in Alaska, where he is spending the summer working with a construction crew, coaching a Boys and Girls Club soccer team and surrendering to the "lure of the outdoors."
But, he added, "The experience definitely stretched my mind, not only academically, but with all the people I met, all the events and places I saw.
"I'd love to go back, even now. I was there three months and that just wasn't long enough."
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