Long journey to Jerusalem

Margaret Long arrived in Israel as a Catholic from Northern Ireland on a year-long nursing program. Thirty-seven years later, she’s a newly retired Jewish Jerusalemite.

Margaret Long 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Margaret Long 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Margaret Long insists she left Ireland to escape watching politicians argue without doing anything to solve religious conflict.
What’s interesting is where she ended up: Jerusalem.
Long arrived in Jerusalem in August 1973 to do a year-long job at Hadassah- University Hospital in Ein Kerem. Before she left Ireland, the papers were filled with reports of the increasingly volatile situation in the Middle East. But the eldest daughter of five in a devout Roman Catholic family from Northern Ireland was no stranger to conflict.
“It’ll be just another experience,” she told worried friends.
Long finally left Hadassah in February 2010. Her one-year residency stretched into 37 years in gynecology, the general operating room and orthopedics. She retired as head nurse of the orthopedic operating room.
“You get involved. You become a member of society, you work in a prestigious hospital with high standards that you fight for and then, suddenly, 37 years have gone by. Where did they go?!” Long asks herself as she contemplates retirement.
More than 100 people attended her retirement party, presenting her with a plaque made of pins used in hip replacement surgery. In a video celebrating her almost four decades at the hospital, doctors and staff praised her dedication and the way she insisted on upholding the highest standards, whether they liked it or not.
Long was born in Armagh in 1944. “There used to be shootings and such because we lived near the border [between the republic and Northern Ireland],” she remembers. The “safe room” in their house was the coal house around the back. “They split our coal house in two and put blankets and mattresses in there... We loved it because there was an electric light and we could read,” she says. “We got used to it because you get used to things. We even got used to bombs in Jerusalem!” Long left Ireland before the bombings got really bad, though her brother-in-law was badly wounded in the mid-1980s.
At 17, Long decided that nursing represented a way to see the world. After studying for two years and passing the exam for the World College of Nursing, Long left Ireland in 1967. She did additional training in England and worked in one of the first day clinics in London, rising to head nurse.
“My boss was Jewish, my boyfriend was Jewish, everything was Jewish. It was so funny. But then I decided I had had enough, and I wanted to get out of England,” Long says.
She had two choices: South Africa and Israel. She decided to try Israel for a year.
Long arrived in Jerusalem in August 1973 and rented a room with a religious family on Rehov Ben-Sira downtown.
“I was like a fish out of water,” Long remembers. “It wasn’t like today, when everyone speaks and understands English.”
Trying to get used to the country was difficult. “It’s not that they weren’t nice to me, it’s just that they weren’t interested in me because nobody wants to invest time in someone you think is going to leave in a year.”
But barely two months into her time in Israel, the Yom Kippur War broke out.
Long remembers not understanding why there were trucks in the streets on Yom Kippur afternoon.
“I went to work the next day, and we did nothing because we didn’t know what Jordan was going to do,” Long says.
“We didn’t get casualties, so we drank coffee and watched the news. I didn’t even know where the Golan Heights were. I hadn’t had a chance to travel anywhere.
“After three days we got casualties and worked straight through. Wars are very difficult. The war ended, thank God.
We’ve had several since... When I was working in the war, I was like a stranger to everybody. I didn’t have family in the war. I didn’t have the same stress levels. I wasn’t keyed up that maybe I’d see my brother or sister coming in. They used to sometimes give me the difficult cases because of the fact that I didn’t have family involved,” Long says.
Despite being new in Israel, the tragedy of war struck Long as well: A pilot with whom she’d celebrated Rosh Hashana in Eilat just a few days before was killed.
“I think I knew by the end of the war that I wanted to stay,” Long says. “It was a long-term thing; I had given up on South Africa. I like the way of life here, and I like the challenges. When you come to a country and don’t know the language and you don’t have the religion either, you’re treated differently. You have to fight for your own standards.”
AFTER A FEW years in Israel, Long decided to convert to Judaism. She brought her trademark assertiveness to the conversion process as well.
“[My conversion teacher] would say, ‘You have to do this and you have to do that.’ And I said to her, ‘I just came out of one religion and now I’m joining another. I don’t want to know what I have to do, I want to know why I have to do it, and then I’ll tell you what I think about it!” Long laughs when she remembers the reaction. “She said she’d never met anyone like me.”
Never one to take the easy path, Long extended her conversion classes by a year because she felt she didn’t have adequate knowledge. Long’s family back in Ireland was not close knit, but was deeply religious, and her decision to convert shocked them.
“When I converted, my rabbi convinced me to go see my family afterwards... My father didn’t even answer the letters I wrote to him, so I just took the train from Belfast. I opened the front door and he was walking down the stairs, and he says to me ‘Oh, the mountain came to Muhammad.’ I burst out laughing. I said: ‘You’re Christian, I’m Jewish, and we’re talking about Muhammad?!’” Later, her father went to talk to a local Jesuit priest to discuss his daughter’s conversion. “Thank God he went to a Jesuit,” Long says, “because the Jesuits are the intellectuals of the church. And the Jesuit says to him, ‘Mr. Long, what are you worried about? It’s much more difficult being Jewish than being Christian. They’ve got dietary laws, they’ve got 613 rules, they’ve got all sorts of things.’” Taking the more difficult route, through religion, education or lifestyle, is a theme that’s stayed with Long throughout her life. It doesn’t bother her that she has a reputation for being assertive and stronghanded in the hospital. In her farewell video, plenty of doctors joke about the various rules Long was famous for enforcing: masks required at all times in the operating rooms, and no cellphone conversations while with patients.
“When they were making a video for my retirement, the girl asked me if I had any regrets. I told her I had one regret: that I didn’t learn Hebrew,” Long says. “I should have gone to a kibbutz where they speak Swahili and Japanese and Ladino and maybe I’d come out speaking Hebrew. I don’t speak or read Hebrew well. I’m sure it is isolating, but with a career and being single, you can’t do everything.”
Long worries a bit about the next stage of her life, but knows she’ll enjoy being retired. After 37 years of waking every day at 4:45 a.m. and arriving at the office before 7:00, Long now lets herself sleep until 6:45. She plans to paint more – a hobby she discovered after the death of her mother. Her intricate water colors reveal tranquil scenes from her native Ireland, pastures and trees and fences dappled with sunlight.
“For some reason, I can’t paint Israeli scenes,” Long explains. “I can only paint Ireland. I don’t know why.”
She’s looking forward to hosting family and friends in her spacious apartment in Gilo, catching up with old friends, and being Israeli without being a nurse – two things that have been central to her identity. Looking back over her 37 years here, Long muses how everything has changed: nursing, Israel, the patients who have touched her life.
“When you think about it now, and you look back, the technology today is so incredible. It’s like science fiction sometimes. Nursing today is not what it was 20 or 30 years ago. Each generation gives something, and each generation takes something as well.”