150 Years of Teaching Muslims, Jews and Christians Together in Jaffa

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With a student body of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Druze and Buddhists, the Tabeetha School, now commemorating its 150th anniversary, is like no other in the country.

It was the mid-19th century, and Jane Walker-Arnott, a blue-eyed Scotswoman of delicate health, decided to leave her windswept lowlands home and travel to the Holy Land, her sister Emilia in tow, to soak up the Mediterranean sun and volunteer with a Christian mission in Jaffa.

Once settled, and moved by the lack of educational possibilities for the girls of the rundown port city, the young Walker-Arnott did what probably any self-respecting daughter of a Glasgow university professor with a heavy dose of social consciousness and clear streak of independence would do: She decided to open a little school.

And so it happened that, in 1863, 14 Jaffa girls - Jews, Muslims and Christians - all clutching pencils and notebooks, moved into the second floor of Walker-Arnott's small house. Lessons in reading, writing, Bible study, sewing and lace-making had begun. Walker-Arnott, who would dedicate the rest of her life to the school, called her project "Tabeetha" after that woman of good works in the New Testament's Acts of the Apostles.

Flash forward through the rest of the Ottoman period, the British Mandate, the Arab revolts, the 1947 passage of the United Nations partition plan, the War of Independence, the rise of the state of Israel and the flight of most of the original local Palestinian inhabitants, Jaffa's annexation into the new city of Tel Aviv, other wars and two intifadas - and one arrives squarely in 2013, at the Tabeetha School's 150th anniversary celebrations.

The festivities, which will be crowned this weekend with a gala dinner for hundreds of alumni from around the world, began last Friday with the annual Spring Fair. A fair featuring booths and games with refreshments that this year came complete with Grade 7's Rasta hair-styling station, Grade 5's "Angry Birds" bookmarks stall, and Grade 6's "Zap the Rat" booth, which basically challenged Jaffa's best and brightest to whack a stuffed rat made out of a sock with a colorful baseball bat.

More whipped cream

Teenagers are sitting out on the picnic benches near the computer labs, eating lentils and rice, flirting in Arabic and texting their friends over on the other side of the building to come join them, in English. The eighth grade's crepe-station manager, proudly wearing his older brother's Israeli army unit T-shirt, is mobbed by Russian- and Hebrew-speaking kids wanting to know if they can get more whipped cream on their portions. Peels of laughter and shouts in no particular language are coming from the bouncy castle set up on the basketball court. And a bagpipe band dressed in Scottish tartan is playing a very original version of "Gangnam Style."

"This is a special place," says Antony Short, Tabeetha's affable headmaster, a former South African, and a Christian who is married to a seventh-generation Jewish Israeli. He has been steering the institution for the past five years, and teaching middle school biology there for over a decade.

And while it comes as no surprise that a headmaster would proclaim that the school he heads is "special" - in this case, his words are something of an understatement. The Tabeetha School, which was bequeathed to the Church of Scotland by Jane Walker-Arnott at her death in 1911, is like no other school in this country. Co-ed, and not a boarding school anymore, Tabeetha offers kindergarten through high-school education, with classes conducted in English. Students follow the British national curriculum, do A levels and receive an International General Certificate of Secondary Education, as opposed to doing the Israeli bagrut (matriculation ) exams. The school is recognized by the Israeli government as an amuta, a non-profit organization. School fees, on a sliding scale between NIS 10,000 and NIS 30,000 a year, are higher than typical Israeli education-system fees, and yet competition to get in is fierce.

Hindus and Buddhists

Over half the pupils are Christian, of various denominations, and the rest are Muslims (about 30 percent ) and Jews (about 5 percent ), with a smattering of everyone from Hindus to Druze to Buddhists to atheists rounding out the classes.

Of the 25 students in each class, five places are reserved for expatriates, typically children from the diplomatic and business community in Tel Aviv and the surrounding area. This means that there is a veritable United Nations on the playground, with Chinese, Irish, Italian, Colombian and Canadian kids playing tag with their Muslim friends from Tira, Christians from Jaffa and Jews from Bat Yam. Close to 40 nationalities are represented at Tabeetha, a fact that comes in handy at the school's annual International Food Day.

They celebrate Easter and Christmas here and have assemblies led by a Church of Scotland minister - but the pupils also mark Ramadan and Id Al-Fitr, and get dressed up for a Purim disco. The student body is asked to stand for a moment of silence on Israel's Memorial Day, something teachers - themselves a mix of religions and nationalities - will admit is one of the trickiest to navigate of all of the year's many events.

Faculty and students manage, says Tabeetha's deputy principal, Pam Gilboa, by "leaving politics at the gate." A Scotswoman who married an Israeli and has lived here for 27 years, Gilboa, who teaches religious studies and philosophy, describes Tabeetha as a place that celebrates cultural and religious differences, but doesn't dwell on them overly much.

"I am an old man and have seen wars, and tensions between us come and go," nods the doyen of the staff, mathematics teacher Mohammad Abu Kaoud, in agreement; he is known affectionately by the others as "AK." "But this school remains an oasis."

A Muslim, and the son of a local electrician who grew up directly across from Tabeetha, Abu Kaoud was himself a student there 65 years ago, and has seen his five children and many of his 11 grandchildren follow in his footsteps.

"Once you have seen so much in life, you don't get too riled about the differences and conflicts between us. They come and go," he says. "You just stay focused on good teaching ... and sympathy and caring for all."

And if the mix of students and this sort of philosophy were not unique enough, students here wear a uniform, line up in the morning to walk behind their teachers, whom they address as "Sir" and "Miss," into class, and stand when the principal enters the room. There seems to be almost as much emphasis placed here on good manners as on integral calculus and European history.

On this particular sunny Spring Fair day, a small, local tour group has stopped to admire the Ottoman architecture of the school building, which has been, since 1875, located on Yefet Street, right up the road from the famed Abulafia bakery, and a hop, skip and a jump from both the gentrified Jaffa flea market to the east and the renovated old city and port to the west. The flag of Scotland, with its blue-and-white St. Andrew's Cross, flutters above the building in the wind.

The group peers through the guarded gate as their guide, speaking into his microphone in Hebrew, gives a rundown of the "who's who" of local judges, businessmen and ambassadors, right down to the Abulafias themselves, who have sent their little ones through these doors. "What they teach here," the guide says, "is how to live together."

"That is really something," agree the visitors in unison. And then they move on up the street toward the Victory ice cream store, just as the bagpipe band strikes up a new jig.

Headmaster Antony Short, at the Tabeetha School. The students celebrate Christmas, but also mark Ramadan and Id Al-Fitr, and get dressed up for Purim.Credit: Nir Keidar

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