Maxine’s Answers to Interview Questions by author Ellie S. Grossman

  1. Where did the name Torah Trailblazers come from?

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.  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.

2.  What is the connection between being outdoors in nature and learning the Torah at the same time?

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.

3. How does the environment and the physical activity enhance the learning experience?

There are mind/body benefits of enjoying physical activity in natural environments.  Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn has found that meditation and other contemplative activities such as hiking in nature foster 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.

4.  Is this the first year for Torah trailblazers?

Yes, Torah Trailblazers was selected as one of the first recipients of the St. Louis Jewish Federation Innovation Grants founded in 2014.

5.  Describe the experience? First, you hike to a scenic place. Then, you have a lesson about values. Give examples of values. Then you end the class with stretching, yoga and breathing?

First we will hike in a picturesque setting. This helps revive one’s spirit to fully taste life or become re-awaken to the astonishment of nature’s treasures.  At a scenic clearing a brief Torah insight will be discussed. For example we are told to emulate G-d. Being led by G-d’s hand or walking with G-d leads to the desire to do good which is one example of the value of Chesed (kindness).  The idea of Hashgacha Pratit (Divine providence or supervision of every occurrence and every creature) is credited to The Baal Shem Tov an 18th century mystical Rabbi.   It affirms that life is not chance or coincidence but indeed the hand of G-d.  The Integration of spirituality with an outdoors mindfulness experience, concludes with yoga and breathing exercises.

6.  Do you have to be an experienced hiker to participate?

Each hike will be a total of two hours including the learning portion.  Previous hiking experience is helpful but not required.  Please read detailed descriptions of each hike by opening the attached link to each selected park on the registration page.

7.  Will you be teaching Torah lessons, if so, please explain? Is it the Torah lesson of the week?

Over the last eight years I have been assembling Torah inspired lessons creating a Soulful field guide or Jewish Life Map.  Some are related to the Torah portion of the week, many correlate with Jewish Holidays or festivals.  Since our first hike is 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.

8.  And this is FREE, right? But space is limited.

The class size is limited to 25 hikers (18 years and older).  Should you need to cancel please contact to make space available for other participants.

9.  Explain what you mean about “promoting Jewish unity in STL community?”

The outdoor adventure is trans-denominational, all branches of Judaism are welcome.

10.  What kinds of Jewish activities and organizations are you involved in now?

I just returned from Israel as one of the 25 Jewish Leaders to be the first to participate as a Hadassah Leadership Fellow.  I am an active member in Nishmah and the new St. Louis Jewish Women’s Society (an offshoot of JWRP Jewish Women’s Renaissance Program which I attended in 2010.)  My husband and I have studied at AISH Ha Torah over the last 30 years and I am a recent enrollee of the Mussar Institute program offered at CAGE.

11.  Please briefly explain your near death experience when you were out of the country and how it has changed your life? What was the year you got sick?

Almost a year ago, the reconstruction of my esophagus reshaped my body as well as my identity.  I was unable to breathe on my own for a month and was not able to eat or drink by mouth for over five months.  I have relearned two of the most basic bodily functions.  Each breath is a celebration, as well as each bite.  Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Sages, compiled 2,000 years ago) points out, “Who is wealthy? The one who is happy with what he has.” 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.  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. From trauma to transcendence, the healing stories that accurately document my journey from Portugal (November 2012) to my current state of well-being can be found on:

12.  One more question as I start to put your story together…and this is a big one…

How has your near death experience transformed your life, literally, and influenced the way you are going to teach Torah Trailblazers?

When my esophagus ruptured on a 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 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.  Just a year ago I was still unable to eat or drink anything by mouth.  For a period of six months I received liquid nutrition through a gastric feeding tube until last April when I was surgically reconstructed.

My medical as well as my spiritual journey to rebuild my life is best understood by reading my blog on:

The influence that my near death experience has had on my life is hard to condense into a sound bite without sounding trite.  Most obvious is that I have a greater appreciation for my body’s ability to breathe and eat.  These most basic life tasks are celebrated along with the slow return of my physical strength.  I cannot comfortably invert my body (think downward dog) due to the new placement of my stomach at my sternum.

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.  In Hebrew gratitude is called Hakarat Hatov (to recognize the good).  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.

Please enjoy Ellie’s blog post:

Take A Hike—With Torah Trailblazers

on Mishegas of Motherhood

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