Rachel Cowan

Rabbi
1941 – 2018

by Naamah Kelman

Rabbi Rachel Cowan left this earth on August 31, 2018, at the age of 77. Her biography and her legacy are a remarkable story of compassionate leadership.

Rachel was a rabbi, teacher, friend, sister, and my rebbe. I first met Rachel at my parents’ Shabbat table in 1978, when she was on her Jewish journey with her extraordinary husband, Paul Cowan. Born Rachel Brown, a direct descendent of the Mayflower, she was raised in the best New England traditions of service: love of nature and humanity.  Rachel had met Paul when they were civil rights activists, preparing young black children to integrate schools; they married in 1965. Paul was raised as a totally assimilated Jew, but when they had children and were living on New York’s Upper West Side, they began to explore Judaism together. Rachel converted to Judaism in 1980, and put her skills as a trained social worker and community activist to work in reviving the once-proud Ansche Chesed Synagogue.

Every inflection point in Rachel’s life became a source of mission and activism: as half of a young intermarried couple in the 1970s, she pushed for inclusivity in the Jewish community, co-authoring with Paul the groundbreaking book, Mixed Blessings: Overcoming the Stumbling Blocks in an Interfaith Marriage. When she became Jewish and then a rabbi (she was ordained in 1989 by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion), she used her dual perspective as both outsider and insider to sense what was needed in the Jewish world.

When her beloved Paul died of cancer at the age of 48, Rachel discovered that the Jewish world lacked the tools for healing practices and working with bereaved families. She harnessed her grief to fill that gap, and became one of the founders of the Jewish healing movement.

As Director of Jewish Life for the Nathan Cummings Foundation for 14 years, Rachel was able to promote women’s empowerment in the former Soviet Union, be the catalyst for the Israeli Jewish renaissance movement that began in the 1990s, support interfaith relations and social justice activism, and so much more. The jewel in the crown was the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, where she created opportunities for Jewish wellness and spiritual development for rabbis, cantors, educators and lay people, and which she eventually left the Foundation to lead. Rachel, alongside extraordinary partners, integrated mindfulness practices, yoga, hasidic texts, and niggunim (wordless melodies) to renew burnt-out professionals, infusing the work with her patrician grace, passionate Jewish soul, and deep belief in the endless capacity of the human spirit. Over the last 5 years, she and Linda Thal authored and then created groups and workshops for their book on Wise Aging

At every step of her life – including her final months, in which she taught us all how to live while letting go – Rachel shared her wisdom, sensitivity, and insight. The message she imparted to the next generation of rabbis and cantors at Hebrew Union College’s rabbinic ordination in 2011 captures her spirit:

I didn’t know I had a spiritual core 22 years ago when I sat in your pew, though I was beginning to suspect that there was something more I needed to understand to give me the confidence and courage and inspiration I would need to build my career and shape my life. The trajectory of my rabbinate on that day looked drastically different from what I had planned when I entered school…

But then the trajectory of my life had turned out to be different from what I could possibly have imagined growing up.  As a teenager in Wellesley Massachusetts, I was inspired by my Quaker summer camp and my Unitarian Church youth movement, as well as my parents’ New England Protestant values, to become a social justice activist, civil rights worker, Peace Corps volunteer, feminist, birdwatcher. A good person.

But more was called for from me.  I had the great fortune to meet Paul Cowan – to be entranced when he told me he worked for civil rights because he was a Jew – and to marry him.  Over the course of the next 15 years, raising two children, and making a home on the Upper West Side, we were drawn into Jewish life, and I to converting.  Thereafter, I became deeply involved with the people revitalizing the then-comatose congregation Ansche Chesed, and was inspired to apply to rabbinical school. I was attracted to HUC for its emphasis on social justice, outreach, and the emerging feminist consciousness amongst the women rabbis… We did not speak of the presence of God, the experience of prayer, or the inner life in those days.

Tragedy changed all that. Paul was diagnosed with leukemia at the beginning of my fourth year and died at the beginning of my last year…

Through months of shock and grief, I finally forgave the God whom I imagined had failed Paul and me and found a God who was present for the broken-hearted, and I could pray again. When I sat here on my ordination day in 1989, in this awe-inspiring sanctuary, I felt Paul with me – high up above, radiating love and pride. 

Later, through working with my classmate and colleague Rabbi Nancy Flam and others to build the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, we helped rabbis, cantors and lay people to create such a (new kind of spiritual) home in many Jewish communities.

In this work, I discovered the concept of spiritual practice and ways to cultivate it.  By practice, I mean daily activities that cultivate qualities of mind, soul, heart and body, that are experiential, accessible, helpful – not simply intellectual, or rote.

Gradually, with a lot of work, I have integrated meditation, and prayer and blessing into my daily life in a way that centers me and helps me live with gratitude, joy, hope, patience, love and courage – even in times of stress, depression, and despair. I study regularly, and I try consciously to look for God’s presence in faces on the street and in the subway, in social interactions of all kinds and in walks in the park or flowers on fruit stands. Praying in shul is part of the work, but by no means all of it…  

You don’t have to be Ben Gurion or Golda Meir or Gandhi or Martin Luther King.  You just have:

  • to be your most authentic, courageous and inspiring self;
  • to trust your heart and keep opening it wider;
  • to be generous, compassionate, patient, collaborative, thoughtful;
  • to be grounded in texts that speak to your lives and those of your people;
  • to speak of God in your authentic way, in terms that help your people overcome their alienation and find a Jewish link to the transcendent;
  • to have the equanimity that can embrace paradox and can welcome conflicting opinions;
  • to speak wisely and help others end this dreadful scourge of turning political differences into personal attacks; 
  • to be able to hold the terrible grief of those who suffer in your communities without becoming traumatized yourself, so you can celebrate with true joy the simchas of others, and come home with full attention to your families.

That is a lot of work, but with spiritual practice, teachers and trusted confidantes, you can do this!  You really can!

Rachel Cowan ignited the inner light of countless students and fellow seekers. I was blessed with years of friendship and rabbinic sisterhood; her legacy is both a blessing and a clarion call.

Topics: Rabbis
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Naamah Kelman (left) and Rachel Cowan (right) in front of the Eleanor Roosevelt statue in New York City’s Riverside Park, on November 7, 2016. Photo courtesy of Naamah Kelman.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Rachel Cowan, 1941 - 2018." (Viewed on September 15, 2019) <https://jwa.org/weremember/cowan-rachel>.

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