Oakland students at the Bedouin tent experience.
Oakland students at the Bedouin tent experience.

Dr. Michael Pytlik discusses what Oakland University students discover during the school’s Israel Study Abroad program.

Oakland University’s Israel Study Abroad program had completed 11 consecutive trips to Israel since 2009 — until the pandemic put an end to that annual streak in 2020. Since its inception, I, along with co-faculty members Dr. Richard Stamps and Dr. Jon Carroll, have planned these visits, and the program has been successful due in large part to the generous support from the Jewish community. 

Oakland group at the Ophel Archaeological garden, Jerusalem.
Oakland group at the Ophel Archaeological garden, Jerusalem.

This program began when administrators from Oakland toured Israel while they were cementing relations with other academic programs in Israel. Touring in Israel inevitably means visiting archaeological sites. This seemed like a nice fit for students who studied anthropology, archaeology and Judaic Studies at Oakland, and I offered to lead the trips, having already been to Israel dozens of times and worked at numerous archaeological sites.

In 2009, students were fully funded thanks to generous donors. That trip included a week at the now-famous site of Khirbet Qeiyafa, identified as biblical Sha’arayim. An additional week included a tour of Israel. The students were greatly moved by their experiences in Israel, and several of them returned the following year to continue the work.

Students learn surveying at the site of Khirbet Qeiyafa, 2009
Students learn surveying at the site of Khirbet Qeiyafa, 2009

In 2009, Oakland, participating with Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was able to confirm the identity of the site as Sha’arayim, mentioned in the David and Goliath story. This site was dug for another four years and exciting finds awaited the students every year; students also visited such important sites as Beth Shean, En-Gedi, Masada, Herodium, Gamla, Akko, Tel Aviv, Megiddo and, of course, Jerusalem.

Over the years, students experienced an in-depth visit to a Druze village for lunch and lecture, visited the home and orange groves of an Israeli farmer, and enjoyed an overnight stay at a Bedouin tent. The excavation at Sha’arayim made world news when it was associated to the early kingdom of David, c. 1000 B.C.E. 

Oakland students at Caesarea, 2018
Oakland students at Caesarea, 2018

From 2014 to 2017, Oakland moved to the site of Lachish, a monumental tel (a manmade mound consisting of the stratified debris from the accumulated refuse of generations of people) southwest of Jerusalem. The goal here was to determine when the early monarchy of Judah fortified the site. It took four hard seasons of work at this complicated site, but not before the team excavated a Canaanite temple dated to the Late Bronze Age (c. 1300 B.C.E.).

Oakland student at Lachish
Oakland student at Lachish

Digging immediately under the national park footpath, the team exposed the temple and portions of a Canaanite palace nearby. The finds were rich, and the students enjoyed off time by visiting Masada, taking behind-the-scenes tours of Herodium, the location of King Herod’s tomb, Yad Vashem, the Israel Museum and, of course, the Dead Sea. 

Link to King David

In 2018 and 2019, the team ventured to a new site known as Khirbet al-Rai. This site is further west of Lachish. In the two seasons at this site, we announced that the site should be identified as biblical Ziklag. This site was given to David before he was king by the Philistine King of Gath, Achish (I Samuel 27).

Dr. Pytlik excavates loom weights at Khirbet Arai, 2019
Dr. Pytlik excavates loom weights at Khirbet Arai, 2019

Such exciting finds fuel the student experiences as does touring exciting sites in the country.

Our canceled 2020 trip was to have included an expanded itinerary and included an extra day in Jerusalem, a private tour of the Temple road site, and a special weekend in Safed.

We hope that 2021 or 2022 (at the latest) will see us back in Israel!

Oakland student excavates a room at Khirbet Qeiyafa
Oakland student excavates a room at Khirbet Qeiyafa

Dr. Michael Pytlik is director of Judaic Studies, the Cis Maisel Center for Judaic Studies and Community Engagement and the Study Abroad in Israel, an archaeological field school and culture tour. Find more information about the program at www.oakland.edu/ie/ou-programs/israel.