A small group of women created the Jewish Healing movement in 1990 to expand the normative definitions of Jewish practice to include providing spiritual resources for Jews facing serious illness and their families and caregivers. Five of us – three rabbis (Nancy Flam, Susan Friedman and myself), a breast cancer survivor (Ellen Hermanson z”l who later died of that cancer), and Nessa Rapoport, a novelist who had sustained deep family losses – came together to speak of an enormous absence we had each experienced in our Jewish lives. The Jewish wisdom and practice that help people deal with the suffering that surrounds personal loss and serious illness were not readily available when we needed them.
We were soon joined by Rabbi Amy Eilberg, who formed the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center with Nancy Flam. The healing movement, though not directed at issues unique to women, models the impact of women rabbis on Jewish life. I believe that it took a group of women – including rabbis – to break through the Jewish cultural barrier that saw medical treatment as the only response to illness. We understood that even though illness might not be curable, there were many ways to relieve the suffering. Rituals could restore a sense of calm and order to the emotional and physical chaos of the experience of illness. We knew that relationships and community were the key to healing. So we devised healing services, wrote prayers for patients and doctors alike, created mikveh (ritual bath) rituals, and ran support groups. We helped revitalize synagogue bikkur holim (visiting the sick) groups.
The movement recently celebrated its bat mitzvah. There are now over 40 Jewish healing centers (www.ncjh.org). The misheberakh (blessing for healing) is now prayed for the ill in thousands of synagogues. Jewish patients and their families now have Jewish resources to make the experience more bearable – and often even transcendent.
And then, from working with the spirituality of brokenness, women took the lead in understanding more deeply the spirituality of wholeness, shlemut. Amy Eilberg went on to co-create the Yedidya Center for Jewish Spiritual Direction (www.yedidyacenter.org), and Nancy Flam and I helped to found the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (www.ijs-online.org).
Rachel Cowan was the Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. She was previously the Program Director for Jewish Life at the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Cowan earned her B.A. from Bryn Mawr College and Master’s degrees from the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where she was also ordained as a rabbi in 1989. She has written Growing Up Yanqui and Mixed Blessings: Untangling the Knots in Interfaith Marriage (with Paul Cowan), as well as numerous articles in Moment, Sh’ma, and anthologies. Cowan has received several honors, including being counted among the “Forward 50” in 2000 and 2001. Rachel died on August 31, 2018.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Rachel Cowan." (Viewed on April 20, 2021) <https://jwa.org/feminism/cowan-rachel>.