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Remembering Rabbi Rachel Cowan, The ‘Mother Of Jewish Healing’

The Jewish community is extending its condolences to the family of Rabbi Rachel Cowan, an innovative American Jewish leader who died Friday at the age of 77. Here’s what the Forward has written about her over the years:

Cowan wasn’t born Jewish. She comes from a family that traces its roots all the way back to the Mayflower. After 15 years of marriage to the Jewish — but not observant — journalist Paul Cowan, she formally converted. The two became more religious together and raised their children attending Ansche Chesed synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Cowan delved more deeply into Judaism by studying at both the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where she earned her ordination.
Her husband’s death in 1988 from cancer was a life-changing moment — and it prompted her interest in healing.
“I have been knocked off stride,” she wrote in 1991, in a piece describing the genesis of contemporary Jewish healing. “How, I now wonder, can we really help ourselves and help each other to feel whole, at one with ourselves?”

Sen. John McCain and Rabbi Rachel Cowan inhabit different universes politically, socially, economically and religiously. Cowan did not vote for McCain when he ran for president in 2008. In fact, she’s never voted for a Republican and — wild guess here — I bet he’s never participated in a meditation service led by a female rabbi who has long been a civil rights activist and spiritual teacher.
But now the senator and the rabbi share one poignant, terrible thing: glioblastoma, a rare, aggressive cancer of the brain. When my husband and I visited Rachel on Shabbat afternoon — we are relative newcomers to her extraordinarily broad and deep circle of friends — it was the day after McCain, for the second time, announced that he would not support the last-ditch efforts by his fellow Senate Republicans to obliterate the Affordable Care Act and replace it with, well, something far, far worse….So, she wants to say directly to McCain: “Thank you for flying in late at night, not knowing what’s going to happen. Thank you for sticking with this. I identify with you as a fellow sufferer. This treatment is not easy. We are supporting you.”
To those who have known Rachel Cowan far longer than I, you know that this embrace is in keeping with her spiritual character, but not with her politics. Do not fear.

When Rabbi Rachel Cowan turned 75 earlier this year, she threw herself a birthday party in keeping with her character. She asked friends and family members to celebrate with her at The Brotherhood Sister Sol, a nonprofit focused on youth development in Harlem, on whose board she sits. She fed and entertained her guests — and then, in the nicest way possible, asked them all for contributions.
The goal was to raise $75,000 to help build a new mindfulness center for the girls and boys, young men and women, served by Bro/Sis, as the organization is known, and within months, Cowan happily reported that she’d reached it. In the process, Cowan continued to do what she has done so well: redefine what it means to grow old.

Contact Aiden Pink at [email protected] or on Twitter, @aidenpink


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