Local teachers dig through biblical history

Local teachers dig through biblical history

Classrooms Without Borders “archaeologists” visit the Caesarea Aqueduct (top left) and Masada. 

Photos by Suzanne Belles
Classrooms Without Borders “archaeologists” visit the Caesarea Aqueduct (top left) and Masada. Photos by Suzanne Belles

In Israel, a country one-sixth the size of Pennsylvania, startups share the same sites as ancient artifacts.

Marc Rice, who just returned from an archaeology-focused trip there with Classrooms Without Borders, has the firsthand experience to prove the statement true. “Everyone in Israel is an amateur archaeologist,” he said. “And for good reason.”

Classrooms Without Borders, a nonprofit group founded in 2011 by Ziporah Gur, seeks to provide “experiential, extended term professional development [and] connects teachers and learners through customized professional growth programs,” according to its website. The organization emphasizes field-based learning, taking teachers on trips all over the world. Rice, a retired interventional cardiologist and amateur archaeologist who is a member of the organization’s advisory board, joined 11 Pittsburgh-area teachers for the June 13-22 trip.

It was a chance for the teachers, many of whom were visiting Israel for the first time, to get hands-on learning experiences that they could later transfer to their classrooms. Over nine days, the group visited archeology sites all over the country.

“I’m a little overwhelmed by how present the history feels [there],” said Suzanne Belles, who teaches Latin at Shady Side Academy.

For many of the teachers, the visit to Umm el Kanatir to see the synagogue in the Golan was a highlight. Destroyed by an earthquake in 749, the site is in the midst of a reconstruction project that began in 2003. Jennifer Lanas, who teaches cultural literacy at the Holy Family Academy, described the ruins as “a 3-D jigsaw puzzle,” one that is being reassembled with advanced mapping techniques and microchips, ensuring accuracy in the placement of each stone.

The group also visited Masada, which stood out for Lynn Horton, a science teacher at Winchester Thurston. Her father was “a frustrated historian who used to read me Josephus as a child,” so she knew the tale of the mountain fortress well before she visited the site.

For her part, Belles said Masada was “awe inspiring to the point of being dumbfounding.” James Fleming, who teaches business and information systems at Beacon College in Florida, had never heard of the site or the group of Jewish Zealots who fought against the Roman Army there in the first century, learning about it for the first time a the place itself.

Fleming’s personal favorite was the Dig for a Day program in Beit Guvrin National Park south of Bet Shemesh, where the teachers had a chance to get their hands dirty. “I felt like a kid again,” he said. “They had to drag us out of there.” Most of the group found shells or pieces of broken pottery, but one member found a figurine, and a group nearby had just unearthed an entire vase.

The group “spent almost as much time underground as above,” said Rice, and even got to go spelunking in a series of unexcavated underground caves in the Tel Maresha section of Beit Guvrin. Horton described it as an afternoon of “climbing, crawling and slipping through holes.” Fleming didn’t participate: At 6 foot 3, he was concerned about getting stuck in the unexplored tunnels. But he did join the group in navigating the Hezekiah tunnels in the City of David, a system of aqueducts from the First Temple era.

For all of the trip members, a Friday night service at the Western Wall stood out as particularly beautiful. As they listened to the singing of the Jews at the wall, they heard the muezzin call Muslims to prayer and the church bells from the Christian quarter begin to peal. The “human intersection” of three major religions in one spot, said Horton, was beautiful.

Now back home, the teachers are all full of plans to implement what they learned while abroad. And all have come back with a new understanding of the state of Israel and its history. Horton said that she was struck by the span of history there: “It’s all in this small place.” And she was struck by the importance of the country, too, a repository of so much information, advances and antiquity. “Whether you’re Jewish or not,” she said, “this is everybody’s history.”

Masha Shollar can be reached at mashas@thejewishchronicle.net.