Jane Walker-Arnott, accompanied by her sister Emilia, left Scotland for the Holy Land in 1858 for the benefit of her delicate health and worked with the German Basel Mission in the Port of Jaffa, a run-down community of Christian and Muslim Arabs under Turkish rule. She returned to Scotland in 1860, but having concern for the plight of the girls and women she had seen in the Holy Land, was drawn back to Jaffa. The eldest daughter of a Glasgow University professor felt her greatest contribution could be in educating locals to give them a measure of dignity and independence in an oppressive society.
Tabeetha, named after Tabitha, a woman of good works, in the Acts of the Apostles, admitted its first pupils; fourteen Christian, Jewish and Moslem girls on 16 March 1863 to a room in Jane Walker-Arnott's house. The girls were taught to read and write, to study the Bible and to become skilled at sewing and lace-making. The lace was sold in Scotland to raise money for the school.
Such was the demand from the local community that within ten years Jane Walker-Arnott sought to build a school. In 1874 a plot was purchased outside the walls of the old city of Jaffa, and a Mr Thomas Cook, who led pilgrimages to the Holy Land, sold his house in Bethlehem and gave half the proceeds, 45 Pounds Sterling, to Jane Walker-Arnott.
"Don't book it..."
Thomas Cook laid the cornerstone on 10 March 1875. In the previous year the wall of the ancient City of Jaffa had been breached as the town expanded, and many of the stones used to build the school are said to have come from the wall. The doors of the new school building opened on 1 November 1875.
An account in the first volume of Life and work, 1879, written by Jane's sister, Emilia, tells us that by then the school numbered some 50-60 girls who attended as boarders, and that day pupils attended two day schools in the old city of Jaffa.
The school building is typical of the Turkish Ottoman architecture of the mid-nineteenth century. The building is approached from Yefet Street up steep stairs.
The original wooden balcony has long been replaced by one of concrete with metal railings from which hangs the Saltire flown as a measure of defiance when the school was closed during the Gulf War.
The building is entered through sturdy cedar wood doors, above which is the motto in an open book "Thy Word is Truth". This remains the school's motto. The wide entrance hall is dominated by Italian marble pillars supporting three arches. The lettering over the arches, discovered in April 1996 is from Psalm 28v7, "The Lord is my strength and my shield; in whom my heart trusts; so I am helped, and my heart exults".
The ground floor plan is typical of the style of the period, three rooms on either side of the hall (which replaces what is usually an open courtyard). The end room (now the library) we know to have been the dining-room with kitchens beyond. The lettering over the door to the dining-room 'The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want' is particularly significant as we know that Jane Walker-Arnott was proactive in the relief of suffering from starvation which afflicted the town in the 1870's. Many parents of all faiths sought to have their daughters admitted to the school because they knew that they would be well cared for at a time of great deprivation.
The Gulf War
The lettering over the dining room together with that over the side arch at the bottom right of the hall "Thy God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in Glory by Christ Jesus" was a surprised discovery from the time of the Gulf war! By law, buildings had to have plastic sealed rooms as a defence against chemical attacks. After the war, when the plastic sheeting was removed, it took with it much of the concealing paint and plaster. Further renovations exposed the beautiful scriptures, a very special legacy.
The staircase to the right of the entrance hall leads to the upper hall. Over the arch at the top of the first flight of stairs is a lozenge incised with the delicate interlaced "JWA". The upper hall is light and bright. The school has its own inbuilt air-conditioning system: the windows around the lantern, when open, provide natural ventilation by drawing air through the building. The height of the upper hall is dramatic and further facilitates air flow.
Taking The Air
The upper floor was once the boarding accommodation. The teachers' rooms were in the four corners with the rest of the rooms being given over to dormitories. The large cupboards were used to store clothing. The headmistress's accommodation was to the rear of this floor overlooking orange –groves. A staircase leads to the roof and an old print, circa 1880, shows a wooden parapet at roof level with figures of ladies taking the air and enjoying the view of Tabeetha church, a Russian Orthodox Church renovated in 1995, reputed to house the final resting place of Tabitha, Dorcas of the Acts of the Apostles, whom Peter raised from the dead.
Outside are a number of ancillary buildings. The Walker–Arnott building was erected in 1912 in memory of the school's founder who died the previous year after 48 years of headship. On the ground floor is the Rosie room, named after Jean Rosie MBE, a distinguished and much loved teacher and head teacher at Tabeetha. Upstairs are the chemistry and biology laboratories established in 1994 thanks to the generosity of the Church of Scotland Women’s Guild "SOS" (Strengthen Our School) appeal.
The gardens and grounds are not extensive, but attractive. The original plot was purchased through negotiations undertaken by Thomas Cook's son, John. Later a further plot consisting an orange–grove (the bottom yard) was purchased. The grove was dug up to provide a netball court in the 1920’s. Today only three orange trees survive together with olive trees, palms and conifers. The bottom of the yard is fenced to provide a secure play area for the youngest children; whilst over the wall on the left is the small Christian cemetery where Jane Walker–Arnott is buried, along with Dr. Thomas Hodgkin who was the first to describe Hodgkin's disease.
The Tall Lady with Blue Eyes
Like Tabitha, Jane Walker–Arnott was also "a woman of good works" the "tall lady with blue eyes" who made her way from door–to-door in Jaffa, that in her obituary, reported in The Times of 7 June 1911, it is recorded that some 3,000 local people attended her funeral. The school emblem found on many old documents, is a lamp.
A fitting memorial to a lady of great faith and great vision.
"Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” Ps 119 v 105.
Today Tabeetha provides an English medium-based education for up to 330 pupils of up to 40 different nationalities. Around two-thirds of the pupils are local, mainly from the Jaffa area, Christian and Muslim Arabs and Jews. The remaining third are expatriate children from the diplomatic and business community of Tel Aviv and surrounding areas.
Over half the pupils are Christians of all denominations. Some thirty percent are Muslim and five percent are Jewish. The remainder is made up of Hindu, Buddhist, Druze and a few who profess no religious following.
The staff is as multicultural and religiously diverse as the pupil population. Teachers come from all parts of the world. Most are appointed on a local basis, but the Principal is appointed directly by The Church of Scotland. Apart from the Language teachers, the academic staff have to have English at mother tongue level.
The Church of Scotland is in partnership with the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and as part of the work of the partnership, the School has a Chaplain appointed by the Bishop.
Since 2010, the school has been managed as an "amuta" (non-profit organisation) based in Israel. It draws representatives from the Church of Scotland in Israel, the Partnership and the local community.
In September 2010 a Parents' Group was established to act as a liaison between the school (teachers and Senior Management Team) and the parents and wider community. The Group is made up of at least one parent from each year group and is concerned with fund-raising ideas, and concerns about teaching and learning.
A "Friends of Tabeetha" has been established with the purpose of supporting the school practically and financially as well as spiritually. They are based in Scotland and are in regular contact with the School as well as the Church offices in Edinburgh.