Who The Folk?! Ilene Moore

Ilene Moore was raised in the not-so-Jewish-hotspot of Oklahoma, but is now raising her two children with a non-Jewish husband in St. Louis Park. She talks about navigating religion, her medical career and how she got to Minneapolis in this week’s Who The Folk?!

Are you originally from the Twin Cities?

I’m from Oklahoma. My mom was born and raised in Brooklyn and my dad is Israeli. So I feel like I was raised by blunt and blunt-er. I was raised to very much speak my mind, which in Oklahoma, was fine. There weren’t a lot of Jews growing up; there’s a small synagogue in Oklahoma City that’s been around for over 100 years. That was where I grew up. It was a small community with very minimal Jewish involvement. There wasn’t even a Chabad where I was growing up. Now there is, but there wasn’t [then]; there were the conservative synagogue and the reform temple.

So how did you end up here back in Minneapolis?

I went to medical school in Oklahoma. I did a fellowship in pediatric critical care in Memphis, Tenn. The Jewish community in Memphis, I loved. But the rest of Memphis was very hard for me. You can imagine, being raised by blunt and blunt-er, I was always raised to speak my mind. And in Memphis, people don’t speak their mind. I had a hard time fitting in.

I just was not happy there; it was not good. I didn’t want to go back to Oklahoma — I needed more. There was more out there, especially from a Jewish standpoint, I didn’t want to go back to where there were very few Jews. I love cold weather, I wanted to live in a city versus suburbs or rural area, I want to live where there is a large Jewish community, or at least larger than the places I’d lived (some would argue Minneapolis doesn’t have a large Jewish community). And I wanted to live where I knew someone because when I moved to Memphis, I didn’t know a soul, and it was really, really hard to be a single, young woman in great, big, new community.

I was looking at Boston, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, where my best friend from medical school had gone … San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago. I knew people in all those places. So I started looking and I called my friend Travis and said, ‘Hey, I need to get out of Memphis, I’m done with this town.’ And he said, ‘Well, I work for this company called Allina. I’ll check their listings, see if they have any openings for pediatricians.’ Because I wanted to go back to general pediatrics… That was my original plan and I just needed to go back to basics. I applied to a lot of crazy places. But then there was this job opening at the Allina clinic in Maple Grove… I moved out here the first winter and it was really cold, but still I was like, ‘Ah! A city where when it’s cold people know what to do.’ In Memphis, it snowed once in the three years that I lived there and the city stopped. It wasn’t even a big snow.

How did you end up marrying someone that wasn’t Jewish and then becoming more religious?

I moved here in 2002. I was really active in creating a shul in Minneapolis, like a welcoming group to people who moved to the Twin Cities, because when I moved here I learned from my mistakes and tried to create some connections before I came here. When I met with the rabbi, he was like, ‘Let me introduce you to people.’ So then I started dating. And I feel like I dated every potential Jewish guy. The only thing I didn’t do was hire the bubbies, like the matchmaking service. Then… JDate, then I went to Match. It was the worst dating pool ever.

I picked [my husband] up at a cheese counter. And we had a lot of discussions while dating about … I said to him, ‘Look. You’re the first non-Jewish guy I’ve really dated. I don’t know how this is going to go.’ I said, ‘I don’t know if I want kids one day, but if I do have kids they’re going to be raised Jewish.’ I don’t do that whole two religions. What other people want to do is up to them, absolutely. [My husband] was very into and very supportive of having a Jewish home.

And then in 2009, I went on the very first JWRP trip. And I had very little connection with Orthodox people. Lots of stereotypes, often pitied and ‘oh these poor women who are just there … having all those kids.’ So that was the message that I grew up with. I went on this trip, and met all these Orthodox women like I had never met before in my life, that somehow were observant and yet, fun and not at all oppressed. And they had these good ideas about raising kids. And some of them said, ‘No, I don’t want any more kids.’ And that was big, too. My mind was totally blown. The biggest message that I got was, from what I was raised with Judaism, it’s all or nothing. And the Orthodox looked down on you because you’re not Jewish enough. So don’t let them look down on you. And these women totally busted that. They really ingrained in me the message that Judaism isn’t all or nothing.

I was also really blessed to have this really amazing teacher who said, ‘You know what, your husband isn’t Jewish. He’s a good man. I would never tell you to leave him.’ That was the other thing — I was really afraid that people were going to say, ‘Well the only way you can do anything is if you leave your husband.’ And no one ever said that. And it’s just been huge. The first real teacher that I really had, said, ‘Stop telling your husband to go to things.’ Where I grew up, you didn’t do Judaism in the home, you’d go to shul for services, Kiddush, for oneg, for Bar Mitzvahs. We didn’t regularly light candles in the home, we didn’t regularly have dinner on Shabbat. We did the Seder and we had Rosh Hashanah the first day.

I was always pressuring Patrick to come with me to things. He hated it, oh my god he hated it so much. I don’t blame it. And it was really straining. So my teacher was like, ‘Why are you trying to make him go? Stop asking him. You’re going to end up divorced if you do this. It’s going to be the way you interpreted Judaism that’s doing it. Stop trying to make him become Jewish. He’s not.’ She said, ‘Just don’t ask him anything anymore. If you want to go, you go. And if you really want him to go, have someone else ask him. So it’s not really hammering him. Maybe he’s going to meet a friend this way. Just focus on you; if you’re taking on observance, you take it on and stop making him take it on.’ It was a whole paradigm shift for me. And it saved our marriage, and I’m sure it’s why he continues to be supportive. Any additional step I take, we talk about it… we negotiate, like are we going to do this? What is it going to look like?

That’s a really insane journey.

It is a really insane journey. Now I have two 5-year-olds who go to Torah Academy, which is Orthodox… there’s never a shortage of play dates, invitations and no one has ever said, ‘Our kids can’t play with your kids because you’re not Orthodox.’ It’s been really warm and welcoming.

Do you think that being a doctor and being religious has ever created difficulties?

No. I mean, granted, my religious journey happened after medical school and residency and college. But I had a cousin who is observant and he did a triple-board residency and is Shomer-Shabbos. And he ended up working a lot more than he’d bargained for, but he said that was what he wanted and how he wanted to do it. I’m fortunate that my work doesn’t require Shabbos things. But I think that the more observant I become, the more I work on myself as a Jew, I’m a far better doctor. And the job that I have right now is my dream job. I’m a junkie for being needed, and I’m a medical director at a community health center and a pediatrician.

My patient population is very needy – 80 percent of them are right below the poverty line and most of them are Spanish-speaking. Helping a disadvantaged population is the most Jewish work I could be doing. It’s such Tikkun Olam. Very few of my patients know that I’m Jewish, they don’t care. That work and the work that I do on myself, being more patient, being more compassionate and really just trying to make a positive difference in the world is all influenced by my growth over the last eight years. All of it. I don’t think I would have been as good at my job, as positive, as understanding, as non-judgemental as I can be now.

Favorite Jewish holiday?

My favorite Jewish holiday is Hanukkah. And I’ll tell you why. It has nothing to do with presents. And in fact, we do in our family, four give and four get. So four nights get presents, and four nights give, whether it’s bringing cookies to our neighbors, we do a give because Hanukkah isn’t about gifts. And we’re fortunate to go to a school that reinforces that. They’re not going to school and talking about the gifts they got, but where kids get gelt. It’s very nice.

But this is why Hanukkah’s my favorite. So it takes place in the darkest time of the year, the shortest days. Hanukkah’s all about light… my teacher taught me that this is the time of year when Hashem comes down and fixes everything. The Shabbos candles have to be a certain kind, Hanukkah candles can be anything. They don’t have to be any special thing. You light them at the darkest time of year, and so G-d comes down when we light these candles and he kisses them. In the same way he comes down when we light the Shabbos candles. He comes down at the darkest hour, and we don’t have to do anything. It can be the cleanest or the grungiest menorah.

The other reason is, we tried to for a very long time to have kids. In 2011, on the very last night of Hanukkah, we got a call from our fertility doctor that we’re pregnant.

Favorite Jewish food?

Challah. After I made that first trip with JWRP, on that trip there was a woman teaching how to make challah. And I knew nothing about the mitzvah of challah, I just thought challah is bread, and I like bread. She gave us this talk about how there was this honor of being a Jewish woman, infinitely high up with making challah. It was a really cool class, so I started making challah. And I did it on the sub notion of trying to get pregnant. Every week, I made five pounds of challah dough. I made every type of bread product you could out of challah… kinda crazy.

Click here to nominate your favorite TC Jew to be featured on our weekly Who the Folk?! series!