Religious and cultural dialogue, with a side of archeology

American, German and Israeli students work together to unearth the past at Ramat Rachel.

archeology students 248 88 (photo credit: Jonah Newman)
archeology students 248 88
(photo credit: Jonah Newman)
With the rooftops of Bethlehem in the distance, Julia Damiani works with a small pickax and shovel, clearing dirt from an ancient rock quarry in Ramat Rahel. It's a long way from another, very different Bethlehem - the small town of 72,000 in eastern Pennsylvania where Damiani grew up and attends Moravian College. She's been at it since 5:30 a.m. every day for nearly a month, but the 19-year-old student shows no sign of weariness. "It is definitely hard work - harder than you can imagine - but it's worth it," she says. Damiani and 20 of her peers, from her university and the associated Moravian Theological Seminary, have been working at the Ramat Rahel Excavations Project for almost four weeks alongside a team from Heidelberg University in Germany and other groups and individuals from around the world. "A lot of students don't get a chance to get out of the country, and this is a great way to have a wonderful experience academically and also culturally," says Deborah Appler, a professor of Hebrew Bible at Moravian Theological Seminary and one of the organizers of the group. More than 100 volunteers from at least eight different countries are working this summer on the project, which is in its fifth year. Under the supervision of Israeli staff members from Tel Aviv University, they dig in caves, uncover walls, and discover shards of pottery in what is thought to have been an important administrative center in the 8th century BCE. Oded Lipschits, a professor of Jewish history at TAU, and Manfred Oeming, a Protestant minister and professor of theology and Jewish studies at Heidelberg, codirect the project. They met in 2002, when Lipschits was on sabbatical in Germany, and they brought the first group of volunteers to Ramat Rahel in the summer of 2005. Every summer since, they have organized groups of students to work at the site - to learn about archeology and history, but also to form connections with people of different cultures and backgrounds. Jacob Wright, a professor of Jewish studies at Emory University who has been involved in the project since the start, says social interactions have always been an important goal of the dig, which he compares to a summer camp. Much to the delight of the project's organizers, a number of lasting friendships - and at least one marriage - have been formed between participants, he says. "Just from being on the dig, where there are people from Germany and all these other theological perspectives, is very interesting," says Alfred William Jones III, a master's student at Moravian Seminary. English is the lingua franca of the dig, but a mixture of Hebrew, English and German can be heard as two Israelis and two Germans work together to clear large stones from one of the excavation areas. One of the Germans, Sabine Brandl, a Ph.D. student at Heidelberg who has worked on the Ramat Rahel dig for the past five summers, says the diversity of people is what makes it special. "I've been on a dig in Jordan as well, and it's different," she says. "[There,] it's just local workers and staff from Germany. It's not as international." The relationships she has formed over the years continue long after the dirt of Ramat Rahel is gone from under her fingernails. "After the dig, of course, we're all together on Facebook," she says. Damiani said she enjoys the time the volunteers spend together both during and after the dig, sitting by the pool or on the hotel patio discussing music, sports and religion. With a minister at the head of the project and a number of the volunteers coming from religious institutions, theology is never far-removed from archeology. A few nights a week there are textual readings on the top of the hill, where staff members and volunteers read passages from the Bible and share their reflections on the meanings. Wright says that some participants are uncomfortable about the strong emphasis on religion, specifically Christian faith, but Lipschits, a secular Jew, says that they work hard to ensure that everyone, no matter what their background, feels comfortable. "I think any religious Jew that will see how Jews and Christians are working here together to uncover common history will understand and respect this," he says. When the students and other volunteers finish this summer's excavations on Friday, they may also be the last group to dig at Ramat Rahel, at least for the time being. Wright says the financial crisis has made it harder to find funding, but Lipschits says the project was only planned for five years and has run its course. "I think we got most of the answers we were looking for," Lipschits says. As they prepare to leave Israel on Saturday, the students from Moravian know that they will take more away from this summer than just academic credit from Tel Aviv University for Introduction to Archeology. "It's a good thing to broaden your horizons and learn about different places," Damiani said. "This dig gives you a whole new outlook on the world - not just the things you find, but the people, too."