Maxine Mirowitz: Zen and the art of spiritual sharing

Maxine Mirowitz feeds the chickens in her backyard coop. Photo: Bill Motchan

BY ELLEN FUTTERMAN, EDITOR


Spend a little time with Maxine Mirowitz and don’t be surprised if you wind up feeling relaxed, more spiritually connected, even downright Zen. The 56-year-old yoga enthusiast has a truly calming aura that is infectious. But she says she wasn’t always that way.

“My passion for yoga came to me later in life,” said Mirowitz, who lives in Westwood and belongs to Bais Abraham Congregation. “I was more Type A, into showing who I am through a checklist: I’m an optometrist, I’m a mom, I’m a wife. Then it became my turn. I wanted to learn a little more about the best place for me to be.

“Yoga brought me to an almost sacred place nearly a decade ago. I understood its principles overlap with Judaism, so this oneness we feel, the breath which also means vital life force; those concepts really resonated in my heart. I feel one not only with my mind, body and spirit but also with the community, and that brings me to a connection with my higher power.”

Yoga, nature and spirituality have played a big part in Mirowitz’s volunteerism as well as her physical and mental well-being.

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She was one of the first recipients of Jewish Federation of St. Louis Innovation Grants in 2014 to develop an adventure Torah study class. The mission of her TorahTrailblazers was to cultivate an awareness of nature while promoting unity in the Jewish community.

To do so, she led hikes at several St. Louis-area scenic parks. In addition to two hours or so of walking and enjoying the vistas, she offered a short lesson on spirituality, sometimes drawing from the Torah portion of the week or her own insights on Judaism. She then concluded with a relaxing series of yoga postures.

“Maxine is constantly in motion, she never sits still,” her good friend and dog-walking companion Jenny Wolkowitz said. “She is always trying to deepen her own practice of whatever it is she’s involved with. Whatever she invests herself in she does to better herself and benefit the world. It’s inspiring to watch.”

Mirowitz has been an ongoing presenter at the Nishmah women’s spirituality retreat, which takes place every other year, and hosts several of its programs. Volunteering with the newly formed St. Louis Mikvah Project, she trained as a Nishmah mikvah guide.

“Many observant women use the mikvah (ritual bath) for spiritual reasons,” Mirowitz explains. “Through the St. Louis Mikvah Project, women can use the mikvah to mark various chapters and changes in their life, such as marriage, divorce and menopause. All they need to do is make an appointment through Nishmah, and we help them.”

Other nonprofits Mirowitz has been involved with include the Jewish environmental group Hazon. She introduced the Jewish Community Center to a community-supported agriculture food co-op, and has participated in several bike fundraisers such as the Hazon Israel bike ride; Pedal the Cause, for cancer research; and the MS 150, to combat multiple sclerosis.

As a master gardener for 22 years, she also has volunteered at the Missouri Botanical Garden and the J’s Garden of Eden.

“Last year, when the J’s garden was a little low on funds, I came up with a new way for people to provide ‘seed’ money,” Mirowitz said, explaining that she and her husband funded a plaque in the garden in their grandchild’s name. They are doing the same this year, in honor of their second grandchild, who lives in Israel.

“I hope more people will use this opportunity not only to support the J and the garden but also to show their grandchildren that they are highlights of their life,” she said.

Life and its fragility is something that Mirowitz knows firsthand. About 5½ years ago, during a European cruise to celebrate her 25th wedding anniversary, she wound up being taken by lifeboat to a hospital in Porto, Portugal, because of a life-threatening emergency.

Her esophagus had ruptured, and all of her major organs had shut down. She was given only a 20 percent chance to survive the surgery to close off the remaining small portion of healthy esophageal tissue in her neck area and insert a feeding tube into her stomach.

For two weeks, she remained in a medically induced coma fighting sepsis infection. Unable to breathe on her own when she was awakened, she had to be intubated, which resulted in paralysis of her vocal chords. Finally, after 30 days, an air ambulance transported her from the ICU in Portugal to St. John’s Mercy Hospital in St. Louis.

For six months, she received liquid nutrition through a gastric feeding tube until April 2013.

During this time, a lifeline presented itself in the form of CaringBridge.org. The website allowed Mirowitz’s family, especially her husband, to communicate with family and friends about his wife’s illness through daily online journal entries. Eventually, Mirowitz was able to take over these accounts, which not only chronicled her recovery but also her thoughts and feelings.

“CaringBridge.org allowed me, and my family, to stay connected with the community and our friends throughout my two-year recovery,” Mirowitz said. “Through it, meal trains were set up and other services to support me and my family. It’s incredibly vital for anyone in a health crisis, and I wanted to see it accessible to all.”

Mirowitz wasn’t kidding. In 2014, after a full recovery, she was among the first to participate as a Hadassah Leadership Fellow. In that capacity, she developed a joint project for Hadassah Medical Organization and CaringBridge.org to translate its brochure into Hebrew so that more Israelis could use the website.

“In Israel, few were using CaringBridge to any extent,” she explains. “I took the literature, transcribed it into Hebrew and have covered the printing costs indefinitely to have this program disseminated to new patients in Hadassah hospitals.”

Closer to home, Mirowitz has been bringing a weekly “chair yoga” class to the men and women of Covenant Place for the past few years. In June, she is introducing a Storywriter’s Guild there. The eight-week workshop hopes to inspire participants to compile life lessons to leave their legacy. Mirowitz is already doing similar work as a hospice volunteer through BJC Lumina.

“Maxine is a very gentle person and has a spiritual quality that she inserts into the work she does and the relationship she establishes with people,” said Joan Denison, executive director of Covenant Place. “She really has an understanding where older adults are in relationship to their health, their abilities and their emotional state. She has a gentle understanding of not only their capabilities but also the possibilities of what they can do. I think she empowers them.”