Zoom was boon to biblical archaeology groups. Will enthusiasts agree to meet in person again?

Robert Stieglitz presents an aerial photo of one of the earliest known synagogues discovered, at the site of the Masada fortification, likely used by Jewish rebels in the First Jewish-Roman War, 73-74 CE.

Two local biblical archaeology lecture groups merged for the duration of the pandemic and saw their membership grow with the advent of Zoom presentations, which drew people from outside the Washington area. Now the combined group has to figure out how it’s going to get all those people back into the lecture hall.

“The going-forward assumption is that it is going to be in person with perhaps an online aspect,” said Donald Kane, chairman of the Biblical Archaeology Forum (BAF) and president of the Biblical Archaeology Society of Northern Virginia BASONOVA. “We just don’t know yet. We may record it for people who are not in the Washington area or we may play it for all members.”

Kane, a member of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, took over leadership of both organizations in 2012 when attendance was down to about 20 people per event and funds were almost nonexistent, he said.

Through partnerships with special-interest organizations, synagogues and churches, the Haberman Institute for Jewish Studies and The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, both organizations were able to increase their membership, Kane said. The program became an adjunct to several synagogues’ adult education programs.


BAF met at the Bender Jewish Community Center and BASONOVA met at various ethnic restaurants in the region.

“Prior to the pandemic BAF was drawing an average of more than 110 attendees to its regular Wednesday evening lectures. Attendance at BASONOVA’s Sunday afternoon luncheon and lecture events at ethnic restaurants in Northern Virginia more than tripled in size,” Kane said.

Then the pandemic hit.

Kane said the pandemic presented an opportunity to bring in American and Israeli scholars and archaeologists from all over by merging the organizations and offering regular programming via Zoom.

Recent Zoom presentations have included Egyptian and Babylonian diasporas, lost Gospels, home cooking in ancient Israel, the real lives of women in biblical times and the history of Sparta.

Recently, Robert Stieglitz, professor emeritus of Rutgers University, provided an illustrated presentation on the archaeology of sanctuaries and early synagogues in Israel and elsewhere and their decorative arts. Some 200 people attended the online event.

On Aug. 25, “The Politics of Genealogies in Second Temple Times” will be presented by Deirdre Fulton of Baylor University.

Kane said membership has increased; both organizations have about 300 members each now. Approximately one-third of the membership is not local.
He said the plan is for both organizations to move back into separate, in-person events.

“We have a survey in the field now, to gauge the sentiments of the members, but we will not be going back to in-person events this calendar year,” Kane said.

“Some preliminary results I’ve seen is that people want to get back together, they want to socialize, but when we do go back to in-person, we will insist that all of our attendees be vaccinated,” Kane said.

Zoom, however, has proved to be a highly useful platform.

“What we may do is a hybrid. So the question is, do we do it live, or do we record it? That’s to be determined,” Kane said.

Kane said that pre-pandemic, the groups took off December and the summer months of June, July and August.

“What is very likely to happen is that, at least during those four months, we will do Zoom-only events as a group, BAF and BASONOVA together,” Kane said.

Kane noted that the organizations are all-volunteer, and run on membership dues and admission fees.

Kane initially developed an interest in archaeology after attending a Smithsonian lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls. He has gone on about a half-dozen digs in Israel. Kane said both groups have attracted members from various religions and cultural backgrounds.

“People like to learn about the past, because past is prologue. There’s a social aspect with this, too. People want to get together and socialize over a common set of interests,” Kane said.

The groups present annual scholarships of up to $15,000 each summer to support students on excavations in Israel and Egypt, and Kane said several recipients have gone on to become archaeologists.

“There have been several students whom we have supported who have reported back in later years that they would not have been able to go on excavations without our financial assistance, and as a consequence of going on the excavations, they launched a career in archaeology,” Kane said.

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