Signe Ekblad was from the 1920s through to the 1940s the principal of a private school in Jerusalem for poor Muslim, Jewish and Christian children in Jerusalem, which at the time was under British rule. She was employed by the Christian aid agency Svenska Jerusalemsföreningen (the Swedish Jerusalem society).
Signe Ekblad was born in 1894. She was the first child of a middle class family living at Frösäng farm near Ödeshög in Östergötland. At the turn of the century the family moved to Stockholm. Her and her six siblings’ upbringing was marked by their parents’ involvement in the revival movements within the Swedish church, new evangelical movements which focused on missions, education and leading actively Christian lives. Signe Ekblad was, however, well aware that both the church and wider society were inherently structured according to patriarchal principles. When Signe Ekblad wanted to continue her education, her father pointed her in the direction of folkskolelärarinneseminariet (the state school teacher training programme) in Stockholm, which at the time was seen as an appropriate career for a woman.
From 1912 to 1915 Signe Ekblad studied to be a teacher and her journey, like that of many of her fellow students, became a journey through the social classes. These state school teachers formed a pro-active professional group which set up associations, engaged in politics, social movements and in their local communities. For Signe Ekblad this meant becoming involved in the “hemgård” (settlement) movement – one of its bases was at that time at Birkagården in Stockholm – which was inspired by the English settlement movement. She later deepened her socio-political engagement through her contacts with the Oxford Group movement, whose motto was “a personal and social form of Christianity, inspired by the gospels”.
In parallel with her first job as a schoolteacher in Torshälla from 1915 to 1920, Signe Ekblad finally obtained the qualifications required for university studies. She then began a course in Semitic studies at Uppsala University. She was also politically active in Torshälla in the campaign for women’s suffrage, and gave public talks on the subject.
In 1920 Signe Ekblad was taken on as a missionary by the Svenska Jerusalemsförening. Her task was to become the principal of the Swedish school in Jerusalem. The school had been founded in 1903 and at that time had its premises near the Damascus gate. This was not a school for Swedish children, but rather a form of Christian aid for the poor children of that city. In order to prepare for her task Signe Ekblad travelled to London and spent three semesters at the School of Oriental Studies. During her time in London she gained an insight into contemporary British views on nationalism, colonialism and war. She came face to face with these views in practise when visiting the British mandate of Palestine, which had been founded after the end of the First World War. The knock-on effect of the mandate led to new borders being drawn up across the region. 400 years of Ottoman rule had been overturned and Jewish immigration to Palestine increased sharply. Poorly defined British promises of a Jewish state (the Balfour declaration) generated tensions and subsequently violent clashes between Jews and Arabs.
Signe Ekblad viewed the challenge of being a school principal in this environment as a divine calling. When she was asked what motivated her she answered using a quote from Saint Bridget: “I am only a messenger of a great and powerful God. He is responsible for the tasks I am given and he decides where I am sent. I just obey him.”
When Signe Ekblad made her way to Palestine and Jerusalem in 1922 she was just 28 years old. The task she had received from the board of Svenska Jerusalemsförening was to develop the Swedish school there. During her first year she mapped out the enterprise and wrote letters to the board in Sweden containing comprehensive proposals for changes to both school finances and its activities. At the end of the first academic year the school had expanded to include a new class, in addition to the two pre-school classes, and school fees had been introduced by Signe Ekblad. In 1926 the school moved to a newly-acquired larger building in Musrara with surrounding land, bordering the growing orthodox-Jewish Mea Shearim area. Two years later a new purpose-built school building and associated playground was opened. Everything bore the mark of Signe Ekblad’s convictions and ambitions.
The school differed from the other private schools in Jerusalem in several ways. First and foremost, unlike other foreign schools, the teaching was undertaken in Arabic and not in English, French or German. The pupils comprised Jews, Christians and Muslims, albeit the Christians formed the largest group and largely originated from Melkite (orthodox-Catholic) families. Further, this was a co-educational school were boys and girls were taught in the same classes, in marked contrast to both the British and Arabic school systems.
As a consequence of the rising poverty levels in the 1930s the Swedish school opened a soup kitchen called “Gröna hallen” (the green hall) and the teachers made home visits to their pupils. These were social efforts which were not normally associated with schooling. Furthermore, the pupils were actively involved in the soup kitchen, which was also open to the pupils’ parents. Signe Ekblad placed the Swedish school into what would be termed “local ownership” in contemporary aid work, which is considered to disrupt colonial power structures and contribute to self-sufficiency.
In the school, activities were focused on children who were socially and physically challenged. During Signe Ekblad’s time at the school, teaching expanded to include playtime, aesthetics, as well as sewing classes for the poorest girls. At its peak the school catered for 250 pupils and had about 10 employees.
The principal’s residence, located in the old schoolhouse, became a favoured meeting place for Signe Ekblad’s local and visiting friends during the 1930s and 1940s. Several of her guests became particularly good friends, especially the journalist and author Märta Lindqvist and the Finno-Swedish anthropologist and Palestine researcher Hilma Granqvist. The Swedish honorary consul Hol Lars (Lewis) Larsson, one of the “Jerusalemfararna” (travellers to Jerusalem) from Nås in Dalarna, was another important figure in Signe Ekblad’s life. He supported the school and actively contributed to finding new premises.
In the spring of 1948 Signe Ekblad received a telegram from the board of the Svenska Jerusalemsförening stating that she was to return to Sweden. The school premises had ended up being inside the part of Jerusalem which now belonged to the newly-formed state of Israel, while the majority of the pupils lived in the area which now pertained to the kingdom of Jordan. This meant that the school project could not continue. Signe Ekblad did, however, return to Jerusalem the following year, but had to go home again as it was impossible to continue the enterprise. At this point Signe Ekblad was also suffering badly from the effects of cancer.
During her last years in Jerusalem Signe Ekblad socialised with the missionary Greta Andrén, who had been sent out in 1946 by Svenska Israelsmissionen (“the Swedish mission to Israel”) in order to establish a Swedish theological institute focused on Judaic studies. When Signe Ekblad reflected on the Swedish school it was the importance of the Christian mission and meetings across the religions which formed recurring themes. Perhaps Signe Ekblad served as a contributing factor in the move away from a “Jewish mission” towards a dialogue between Jews and Christians, which became the trademark of the Swedish Theological Institute in Jerusalem. This institute was founded in 1947 and since 1951 has been located within the culturally historical building of Beit Tavor in Western Jerusalem, not far from the premises of the by then already seized Swedish school. In 1959 Svenska Jerusalemsförening took over the running of a school in Bethlehem, called Goda herdens skola, which they still run to this day (2017).
Signe Ekblad never married; she viewed the children at her school as part of her family. Signe Ekblad died at the Samariterhem in Uppsala in 1952. Her grave is at the Norra cemetery in Solna.