With Hanukkah around the corner, now is the perfect time for a gift exchange, especially when the presents are filled with love, spirituality, and delicious snacks and drinks. The upcoming Bracha party—which is like a prayer gift exchange– is all about sharing blessings over special foods with our “sisters” who are part of the St. Louis Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP) and Jewish Women’s Society (JWS) family.
A Bracha is a blessing that is recited at specific times during services and rituals, and this is how a Bracha or Amen party works:
First, women sit around a big table filled with a delicious spread that fits into five symbolic food groups. Stop right there. You had me at women and food.
After the Days of Awe, it’s time to learn a few tricks of the trade when it comes to making challah. This sweet, eggy, moist delicious bread is the staff of life for Jewish people, so now is the time to learn how it’s done. In fact, the only thing more fun than eating these aromatic loaves is braiding the bread among friends. So join us this coming Sunday afternoon at the “Challah Baking & Shabbat In-A-Box,” hosted by the Jewish Women’s Society of Aish HaTorah. As we mix, knead, and braid the soft dough, we’ll also learn about the mitzvah of women making challah. After all, when it comes to making challah, there’s never too many cooks in the kitchen.
Finally, after a long, brutal winter, springtime has sprung! No more excuses–Mother Nature is calling, and it’s time to get active again in the great outdoors. Fortunately, a new St. Louis walking club called the Torah Trailblazers makes exercise fun and invigorating for the body, mind, and soul. Maxine Mirowitz, who taught a Torah-based Yoga program in the St. Louis community, will lead the group hikes, which take place at three local scenic parks.
Torah Trailblazers, made possible as one of the first recipients of the St. Louis Jewish Federation Innovation Grants in 2014, is open to men and women, 18 years and older, and takes place at three local scenic parks where limestone bluffs overlooking the Meramec River are a lot more interesting than jogging on a treadmill in front of the television.
Torah Trailblazers is truly a unique workout, allowing participants of all fitness levels to breathe in fresh air, burn calories, tone muscles, and, most importantly, open your head and heart to a Jewish teaching that can be applied to your everyday life.
“Torah translates in Hebrew as direction, teaching, or instruction. A trailblazer is a person who blazes a trail for others to follow through unsettled wilderness,” explains Mirowitz, whose dedication to health, wellness, and Judaism makes her the perfect leader for this fun activity.
Basically, each session lasts about two hours and includes walking and enjoying the breathtaking vistas, then a short lesson on spirituality (example from the Torah portion of the week or insights regarding a Jewish holiday), and finally concludes with a relaxing series of yoga postures. Obviously, Torah Trailbazers is more than a hike, it’s an adventure so that by the time you head back to your car, you feel like a new person ready to tackle the challenges of daily life.
“I realize that life is an eternal adventure. So a Torah Trailblazer is a fellow pathfinder of peace, inspired to navigate the world’s ever changing terrain to reveal vistas of clarity,” explains Mirowitz, who recently returned from Israel as one of the 25 Jewish Leaders to be the first to participate as a Hadassah Leadership Fellow. She is also an active member in Nishmah and the new St. Louis Jewish Women’s Society, an offshoot of Jewish Women’s Renaissance Program that she attended in 2010. She and her husband Steve (also known as Dever) are members of Bais Abraham shul and have studied at Aish Ha Torah for the last 30 years, and she is a recent enrollee of the Mussar Institute program offered at Central Agency for Jewish Education.
But what makes Mirowitz such a wise teacher about life is that she came face to face with death.
In November 2012, in celebration of their 25th wedding anniversary, she and her husband embarked on a 12-day cruise, a wine immersion trip, from England with stops in France, Spain, and Portugal.
“About one week into the trip, a small bout of hiccups quickly developed into wrenching nausea and vomiting. Experiencing shortness of breath and chest pain, I visited the ship’s medical office. Their first impression was that I had experienced a muscle strain between my ribs leading to anxiety. I was given some medication and went back to my room, where I continued to remain ill for the next three days before returning to the Dr.’s office,” she explains.
What followed developed into a very critically dangerous situation, and their children Jacob, Zachary, and Lee at home, as well as family and friends were notified via email of the life threatening emergency.
“When my esophagus ruptured on the cruise boat, four days passed before it was detected. By the time the lifeboat delivered me to the Portugal public hospital all of my major organs had gone into failure. I was given only a twenty percent chance to survive the surgery to close off the remaining small portion of healthy esophageal tissue in my neck area and insert a feeding tube into my stomach. For two weeks following I was monitored in an induced coma state fighting sepsis infection. Still unable to breathe on my own when I awakened, I had to be intubated. This lead to my vocal chords to be paralyzed so even when I no longer needed oxygen it was hard to speak. After 30 days an air ambulance delivered me from the ICU in Portugal to Mercy hospital,” she says.
Just a year ago, she was still unable to eat or drink anything by mouth. For a period of six months, she received liquid nutrition through a gastric feeding tube until last April when she was surgically reconstructed.
“Ironically all of these obstacles has led to immense inner freedom. When you undertake a fast you have an opportunity to liberate or express your soul. Initially I was afraid to accept my physical body’s limitations because I thought I would lose my identity (as I was no longer able to teach yoga). Instead it opened and freed my ability to love more deeply and show gratitude. Now I have a heightened sense of appreciation for my body and gratitude for my family, community, and Creator,” she says.
For someone who previously exercised everyday and ate a healthy, organic diet and even harvested her own garden, this was a huge change. But she was alive. Her near death experience transformed her life, literally, inside and out.
“The reconstruction of my esophagus reshaped my body as well as my identity. I had to relearn two of the most basic bodily functions—how to breathe and eat. Each breath is a celebration, as well as each bite. In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) we are taught that one who takes pleasure in his portion is truly happy. The art of taking pleasure in what you have is based on the faith that the Almighty gives you exactly what you need,” says Mirowitz, who today loves to hike with her husband and their three rescue dogs, Ashby, Maya, and Millie.
Today, she is healthy and strong and more committed than ever to share her passion for health and wellness and spirituality with others.
“Our job is to deeply appreciate and take pleasure in our portion every second of the day even under challenging circumstances. This concept of deep gratitude saved my body and soul from perishing. My existence still depends on skilled medical practitioners as well as my faith, family, and friends.”
Her journey, “from trauma to transcendence,” is chronicled in her blog at caringbridge.org/visit/maxinemirowitz.
So, a project like Torah Trailblazers is something Mirowitz was destined to take on. Over the last eight years, she has assembled Torah inspired lessons, creating a “soulful field guide “or “Jewish life map” that she will teach on the walk.
“Since our first hike is April 20, during the week of Passover, the holiday of freedom, we will discuss spiritual freedom, having the ability to use your free will to grow and develop,” she says.
Learning about Torah, especially in a beautiful outdoor setting with limestone bluffs, creeks, and forested hills is an ideal way to strengthen your Jewish identity and enhances the learning experience.
“Three pathways can strengthen belief in Judaism. The first is to study Torah. It is said when you pray you speak to G-d, when you study Torah, G-d speaks to you. The second way is to pay attention to everyday miracles. Breathing seems so natural that it is easy to forget that all of our body’s systems are truly miracles. A third pathway to connect with our Creator is to observe G-d’s creations, the wonders of the natural world. The magnificence of nature awakens a sense of awe and wonder which leads us to the knowledge of G-d. Making a date to trail blaze in the woods reminds us that there is a G-d constantly running our world,” says Mirowitz..
“Meditation and other contemplative activities, such as hiking in nature, fosters a sense of purpose and direction in life. Mindfulness promotes compassion toward ourselves, mankind, and the natural world, which are necessary ingredients for well-being,” she adds.
The class size is limited to 25 hikers and all denominations are welcome. Online registration is required and includes a signed consent form, so please visit www.Torahtrailblazers.com for more information and to reserve your spot.
Should you need to cancel please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to make space available to other participants.
Stay tuned for more details on a family hike that will be scheduled in the fall located on a kid-friendly trail.
The hikes take place, from 10 a.m. to noon, at the following parks:
April 20: Castlwood State Park, in Ballwin
May 18: Russel E. Emmenegger Nature Park, in Kirwood
June 22: Flint Quarry Trail at West Tyson County Park, in Eureka.
So, get on the right path, have fun, be active, and join Torah Trailblazers today. For Mirowitz, being outdoors, recognizing God’s wonders, and being with positive people is nothing short of transformational.
“I try not to focus on what my health crisis has taken away from me, rather what it has given me. Our youngest son Lee had lost touch with a childhood classmate Hannah (they were at Solomon Schechter from kindergarten through middle school) until she inquired about my health. Out of my medical mess a romance blossomed, and they were wed this past January. I long for a deeper connection than random chance. Torah Trailblazers is a field trip in nature to inspire introspection and connection. I am privileged to be your trip leader to inner peace, beauty, and serenity.”
When I returned from my JWRP Israel trip last summer, I was determined to keep the energy and excitement going. My experience was, to say the least, spiritually uplifting and I wanted to stay connected to my “St Louis Soul Sistas” and meet new friends who were on the same journey of self growth and discovery. I wanted to continue learning and enrich my life with Jewish values that I could share with my family and my community. Then again, my idea of fun is sharing a bottle of kosher moscato and making challah with my girlfriends.
Well, the Jewish Women’s Society (JWS) of St. Louis does all that, and more. Already 60-plus members strong, the JWS is an exciting new organization that is looking for women like YOU! The JWS was created as an outgrowth of the JWRP, but you don’t have to be a JWRP participant to be a member of JWS–everyone is welcome!
Last month, we launched the JWS at the beautiful home of Sam and Marilyn Fox. The event was co-hosted with their daughters Cheri Fox and Pamela Fox Claman, and JWRP Founding Director Lori Palatnik was in town to help us kick off our new initiative to bring Jewish women of the St. Louis community together through educational campaigns, special events, service projects, leadership opportunities, and more.
“The Jewish women in St. Louis are really on fire after their JWRP experience. I’m very impressed that they started this new initiative, JWS, to keep the momentum going and involve other women in the community,” said Lori Palatnik, founding director of the JWRP, who was in town for the launch of the society.
The JWRP and Aish HaTorah St. Louis have sent more than 70 St. Louis moms to Israel since 2010, with another 14 women going this summer.
“Through its innovative follow-up programming and opportunities, the JWS has the potential to set a precedent for Jewish communities around the world,” Palatnik added.
The JWS is more than a membership organization. The JWS is a movement, and our mission is as follows:
“Embrace the values of our Jewish heritage, emphasizing living harmoniously with self, family and community. The Society provides programs and support for Jewish Women of all backgrounds to strengthen their Jewish identity and their commitment to Jewish life in St Louis and Israel.”
The JWS is excited to roll out a series of educational campaigns that allow participants to live what they learn. Each class focuses on different Jewish values, such as gratitude, kindness, humility, joy, and honesty. JWS members not only attend the class, but they can take advantage of the many tools, resources, progress charts, and service projects. The JWS also offers home study groups that can help people understand the value on a deeper level in a more intimate, ongoing learning experience.
“The JWS’s goal is to strengthen and invigorate these special values and the amazing richness and relevancy it has on our life by impacting our marriage, children, family, and community,” said Rabbi Yosef David, of Aish HaTorah St. Louis. “Members will be inspired to put into action what they learn until it becomes a reality.”
The first class on Lashon Hara, or refraining from gossip and negative talk, will be offered on two dates: Monday, March 31, 9:30 a.m., or Monday, April 1, 7 p.m. Both classes are held at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive. Rabbi Shmuel Greenwald, Educational Director of Aish HaTorah St. Louis, will engage the audience in a conversation based on Palatnik’s book, “Gossip: Ten Pathways to Eliminate It From Your Life and Transform Your Soul,” and all members will get their own copy of the bestseller.
“I’ve taught about Lashon Hara, which means gossip, to literally thousands of people, and this subject touches everyone. Even if we don’t speak gossip, hearing gossip still hurts us with its negativity. Learning the laws of Lashon Hara transforms a person because it makes you stop and think before you gossip or talk negatively, and that will change you and impact those around you. When we eliminate gossip, we have a choice: We can find something positive to say, we can remain silent, or talk about an inspirational idea, which impacts a person to live on a higher level,” said Greenwald.
Other upcoming campaigns include honoring our parents and elders and showing respect, taking care of the sick and less fortunate, and working on being happy with what we have and keeping a gratitude journal.
For more information on the benefits of a JWS membership, please call 314-527-1719, or JWSociety@hotmail.com
And stay tuned for next week’s blog on my own experience giving up gossip–it’s not as easy I thought.
Let’s share our Jewish journey together. “Like” my website Mishegas of Motherhood and stay updated on all JWS news.
“Growth occurs when you are
on the edge of your comfort zone.”
Not exactly sure who told me this quote, but I keep hearing variations of it over and over again, especially as I embark on my spiritual journey.
Living outside the comfort zone means different things to different people. It can be speaking in front of a live audience, asking your boss for a raise, sending a manuscript to a publisher, becoming a vegetarian, taking a Spin class at the gym, being the first to apologize, learning a new language, praying to God out loud, or disconnecting on Shabbat, from sundown on Friday until three stars appear in the sky Saturday night.
When Lori Palatnik speaks, people listen. We not only listen, we take action. This internationally renowned teacher, speaker and author is the founding director of Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP), which has brought more than 4,000 women from 15 different countries to Israel since 2009 on a subsidized tour-and-learn program.
Her weekly video blog, Lori Almost Live, gets 50,000 views each month on the Aish.com website, and now here’s YOUR opportunity to see her LIVE, in person. (And you don’t need a passport to get in the door).
Back by popular demand, Lori is coming to St. Louis on Monday, February 17 for a public speaking event about “Kabbalah of You—Understanding Yourself and Appreciating Others.” Trust me, you don’t want to miss this fascinating presentation on how the kabbalah analyzes our personality in two parts—body and soul. We’ll not only learn what makes us tick, but how we can better understand and improve the relationships we have in our lives, with our spouse, our children, and ourselves.
If you’re lucky enough to have met Palatnik on a JWRP mission to Israel, then you already know how powerful and relevant her words of wisdom are; and if you’ve never witnessed her in action, then you’re in for a real treat. This Toronto native commands the stage and works the room like an IDF sergeant (only less intimidating and more fun). With microphone in hand—look out—she’s a force to be reckoned with.
The JWRP mission is “to empower women to change the world through Jewish values that transform ourselves, our families, and our communities,” and Palatnik has succeeded in doing just that with no intentions of slowing down anytime soon. Currently, this 53-year-old mother of five travels between her two homes, in Maryland and Israel, with her husband Rabbi Yaakov Palatnik, as she writes follow-up classes and programs for 83 different partnering organizations around the world.
The JWRP is so successful, in fact, Israel’s Ministry of the Diaspora has announced it will double any donation JWRP receives and plans to bring twice the number of JWRP women to Israel in 2014!
Take that Pew study!
If one of your New Year’s resolutions includes doing something adventurous that you’ve never done before, then consider this an opportunity knocking on your door.
This summer, 12 St Louis moms embarked on a journey of their lifetime to Israel. I was lucky to be one of them.
One of the MANY highlights of my recent JWRP experience was celebrating my first Shabbat in Israel. The best part—making challah in the same room, at the same time, with 200 other wannabe balaboostas who dispel the theory that too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the soup. I felt like I was on the set of Food Network as I watched Rebbetzin Raizy work her magic on the big screen and effortlessly twist the soft dough into shapes of a dove, butterfly, six-strand loaf, napkin rings, a linked loop round challah, and other creations that would make Martha Stuart envious and want to convert.
In less than one week, I will embark on a journey of my lifetime. As one of 10 St. Louis moms selected to visit Israel with the T.A.G. (Transform and Grow) Mission sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project and coordinated through Aish HaTorah of Greater St. Louis, I’m so excited to see, taste, and feel the holy land for the first time. We will join other moms from all over the world who are coming together to have an uninhibited wonderful adventure and focus on ourselves for a change, without the kids. Most importantly, we will discover what it truly means to be a Jew so that when we return home, after a nine-day, jam-packed adventure that includes everything from kayaking on the Jordan River and floating in Dead Sea to riding a camel and climbing the majestic Masada at dawn, we will be inspired to make a change. Even though that change will be different for all of us, we all want the same thing, to continue learning about Judaism and share our joy and experiences with our family and children.
Thanks to our group leaders Chana Greenwald and Peggy Umansky, who know Israel like the back of their hand, (Chana lived in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for many years, and this is Peggy’s fifth visit to Israel), we know exactly how to prepare ourselves, mentally, physically, spiritually. The neat thing is that some of us already know each other, either as friends or acquaintances, while others have met for the first time. But after our trip, we will go through a transformation to become like sisters. In fact, Ellen made us these beautiful chan luu bracelets so that “we are connected already.”