They love the outdoors. They like to give back. They thrive on challenges.
And they find a direct connection between their Judaism and their work with the Mount Hood Ski Patrol.“I’ve always felt closer to Hashem in the peace and serenity of the mountains than I have other places,” says Jeffrey Weitz, who has volunteered with the Ski Patrol for 18 years. “There’s a feeling of doing Hashem’s work up here – of healing the world, and saving the people we can.”
Steve Sirkin, a longtime volunteer, says he often finds himself reciting the Shema, Judaism’s affirmation of the oneness of God, as he “senses a greater power and presence” while looking out over the mountains and valleys surrounding Mount Hood. “I like to give back to community,” says Jodi Berris, another Ski Patrol member, who adds that it’s been a plus to work with other Jewish volunteers. “We have a special bond.”
Weitz, Sirkin and Berris, along with Mark Diamond, Eric Einspruch and Katrina “Kat” Price Moore, are a small fraction of the nearly 300 members of Mount Hood Ski Patrol – but, like other volunteers, they say it’s among their most rewarding experiences. “This is a way for me to make a difference by impacting lives,” Weitz says. “And a much more direct way for me to ‘save a life’ than other mitzvot, like clothing the naked. This is very much in line with the value of tikkun olam, repairing the world.”
The Mount Hood Ski Patrol, one of the oldest and largest single patrols in the West, was launched in 1937, just as Timberline Lodge was nearing completion and as skiing and snow sports were exploding in popularity.
There clearly was a critical need. As a December 1938 story in The Oregonian noted: “The broad bosom of Mount Hood developed into a famous winter sports arena, and thousands of fans – 141,000 during 1937-38 – began making weekly pilgrimages to indulge, some expertly but the majority amateurishly, in this fast-growing winter pastime.” With no official rescue organization – pre-Ski Patrol – hurt skiers often had to wait up to three hours for aid and because of the wait sometimes required treatment for frostbite in addition to ski injuries. In 1937 the U.S. Forest Service hired Hank Lewis for $10 a weekend to help hurt skiers and organize a formal patrol. The Ski Patrol was incorporated March 2, 1938, with Lewis as patrol chief and about 50 members. This February the Patrol will celebrate its 75th anniversary with two events – a reunion and history event on Feb. 21 (in Portland) and a Feb. 23 get-together up on Mount Hood. For details, visit mthoodskipatrol.org. Today, the Ski Patrol serves alpine skiers and snowboarders at Timberline, Mt. Hood Skibowl Summit Ski Area and Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort. It also includes a Nordic Patrol, which assists cross-country skiers and search-and-rescue operations on the mountain.
Volunteers commit to at least 15 volunteer days on the mountain during the year and seven to 10 additional training days. “We are all trained first responders,” notes Weitz, who says Ski Patrol members can and do help in emergencies on and off the slopes. “If someone collapses in front of us,” he says, “we’re ready to go. We step up.”
Weitz, a commercial property developer who moved to Portland with his family in 1991, grew up in California, where he fell in love with backpacking, climbing and other outdoor sports. His hero was John Muir, the pioneering naturalist who, among other achievements, founded the Sierra Club. “I spent the first part of my life climbing mountains in the Sierra Nevada,” Weitz says. When his wife, Mahri, was almost nine months pregnant with their first child, Weitz, still an avid climber, was caught in a violent storm at the 11,000-foot level of Mount Shasta. “I realized that I might not make it out,” he said. The storm broke, he saw a rainbow, and he decided it was a sign that he should “continue my love for mountains, but in a different way.” After an initial “training year” – part of the regular volunteer training – Weitz has been active in the Ski Patrol both within the Mount Hood group, where he’s held a number of posts, and with the Pacific Northwest Division of the National Ski Patrol. In the latter, he serves as the transportation advisor for some 35 ski areas in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. “My job is to make sure that the training (for toboggan and other emergency transport) is up to national standards,” he says. He started a Young Adult Patrol program for youths 15 to 18 to help them learn proper wilderness behavior and to encourage future volunteers. His son, Gabe, a senior at West Linn High School, has been part of the program and is, according to his father, seriously considering a college major in environmental sciences or studies.
The YAP program enrolls about six to eight youths a season, and trains them in skiing and mountain rescue, wilderness survival techniques, and avalanche control. They assist with patrols at ski resorts, but aren’t permitted by resort rules to be full-fledged patrollers. Weitz estimates he spends between 30 and 40 days a year on the mountain. “I do ski and patrol on Shabbos,” he explains, “because I do feel that’s part of Hashem’s will – I am helping to save lives.”
In addition to his commitment to Ski Patrol, Weitz is involved in a host of other community organizations. He serves on the boards of Congregation Neveh Shalom, Portland Jewish Academy, the Mittleman Jewish Community Center, the Oregon Community Warehouse and the West Linn Arts Commission. “I would rather ski than do anything,” he admits, and says that there is a special camaraderie among Ski Patrollers.
“What keeps me on the Patrol is the people,” he says. “There is a quality, a sincerity, a commitment like no other organization. It’s an honor for me to be able to serve in that way.”
Sirkin, a retired teacher who now lives in Clackamas, says he first thought of volunteering for a ski patrol when he was dating a young woman who was trying out for a patrol in Maryland.
“I was a non-skier,” he says. “After three months of our relationship, we went out together to a ski shop, and I bought a complete set of equipment.” The young woman, Dana, became his wife three months later. Within a year, a Maryland ski patrol leader suggested Sirkin take an American Red Cross Advanced First Aid course and become an auxiliary patroller, since he was hanging around a lot anyway.
“I did,” Sirkin says, “and the rest is, so to speak, history.” They spent weekends volunteering at the Wisp Resort in Western Maryland and then at ski areas in Utah after they moved there. When they moved to the Portland area in 2005, Sirkin signed up to assist at Timberline and Skibowl, even though his wife had “retired” after two decades of patrolling.
Though he was a full patroller in Utah, Sirkin decided to return to auxiliary status, which the Mount Hood Patrol calls “associate.” It means that he often works in the First Aid room and makes the connection with ambulances or Life Flight. At the end of the day, he and others often help “sweep” the slopes – ski down trails that are being closed to make sure that no one is left behind.
“You certainly get a workout doing the job,” he says. “Going to the scene of an injury and participating in the teamwork that each patient requires often is very labor intensive, especially on difficult terrain.”
Berris, a consummate volunteer, decided to go out for Ski Patrol because it gave her an opportunity to volunteer beyond the Jewish community. “I’ve done a lot with the Jewish community for the past eight years,” says Berris, a Michigan native who moved to Portland to take a job at Nike, where she currently is a footwear developer. “This gives me another way to give back.”
In the Jewish community, Berris organized – and continues to organize – an array of initiatives that expand opportunities for young adults. To name a few, she’s put together 1-800-Shabbat dinners, Israeli Club Nights, dodgeball tournaments and a nearly weeklong Modern Orthodox Shabbaton that draws upwards of 75 young adults from around the world. She also was a founder of Moishe House in Portland, which focuses on young adult programs, and has led several Birthright trips to Israel.
She loves skiing – it’s her favorite sport, though she plays many. “It’s marrying my two interests – volunteering and skiing,” she says of Ski Patrol.
Berris first thought of joining a patrol at 19, when she tore her ACL, one of the four major knee ligaments, ski jumping in Utah. “The ski patrol rescued me, and I thought I would want to give back in that way.”
But more torn ligaments and five knee surgeries followed. She was about 26 when her knees finally permitted her to sign up for the Mount Hood Ski Patrol.
Now, eight years later, she’s a “hill patroller,” qualified to transport people off the mountain with a toboggan. She doesn’t ski or patrol on Shabbat, but says that has not posed a problem in meeting her commitments. She just schedules her training and patrol days on Sundays. Like the other volunteers, Berris enjoys the camaraderie. “It’s nice to know that other Jewish people do this,” she said of the Ski Patrol. And, of course, she loves the skiing.“I love the rush, I love the challenge,” she says. “You feel free to soar.”
Sura Rubenstein is a freelance writer in Portland.