Rabbi Rachel Cowan has died after a battle with cancer. Here’s how we profiled the remarkable “mother of Jewish healing” last year.
Rabbi Rachel Cowan moves slowly these days. Her energy lags. She can’t read like she used to. She’s lost most of her eyesight, and sometimes she bumps into things as she makes her way around her home.
“Sometimes,” she said, “I feel like I hate this cancer.”
As a pioneering figure in what’s known as the Jewish healing movement, 77-year-old Cowan spent decades teaching others about the curative power of prayer. Now she’s the one who needs healing. Last February she was diagnosed with brain cancer. She is going through rounds of chemotherapy.
“I thought I knew hard before,” she said in a phone interview. “But I had no idea what hard meant. Now, I’m using all of my healing practices to keep going, to stay alive. There’s no use focusing on the negative.”
As Cowan’s health has deteriorated over the months, the community that she helped build has rallied around her in concern. Mass prayer sessions were organized online, with hundreds of people vowing to recite psalms and pray for her health. “It’s distressing to see Rachel suffer,” said Simkha Weintraub, rabbinic director of the National Center for Jewish Healing, an institute Cowan helped found. Weintraub prays for Cowan daily. “She’s one of the mothers of Jewish healing,” he said.
Cowan’s place of prominence in the Jewish healing movement is part of a long path into the center of the Jewish communal world.
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?”
Together with a group of like-minded Jewish women, Cowan founded the Jewish Healing Center. The women outlined their vision, writing that the center would be “strongly influenced by modern psychology, medical science and pertinent insights of other religious traditions.”
By 1994, the healing center was incorporated as a not-for-profit and was beginning to establish outposts across the country. By the end of the 1990s there were some 30 groups set up, which offered prayers for patients and doctors and provided ritual baths, support groups and visits to the sick.
Weintraub, who then worked as a consultant for the group, called the meetings “spiritual support groups.” They’re still running, and today they offer guidance for people who have recently lost a family member or partner, or are suffering from physical or mental sickness. Workshops integrate traditional health practices with religious ritual, like singing wordless chants or reading passages from the Torah.
In more recent years, Cowan began focusing on religious and spiritual approaches to aging. She co-penned a book called “Wise Aging: Living With Joy, Resilience, & Spirit,” which was billed as a guide to “aging with spirit and wisdom.”
When Cowan was diagnosed with cancer last February, her community of students and colleagues reeled — and looked for ways to support her.
A group of her supporters organized a mass online prayer on her behalf when she was facing surgery in February.
Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s executive director, spearheaded the effort. She set up an online video conferencing call where 100 people logged on. As Cowan was undergoing surgery, Goldstein said, the group members were invited to mediate or pray on Cowan’s behalf. “It was a way of providing spiritual support for Rachel. We wanted to help in some way,” she said.
The prayer lasted for half an hour, and Goldstein made a concluding statement. She believes the prayer had some impact, and she points to the evidence: Cowan said when she came out of surgery she was at peace.
When she regained consciousness, Cowan said, she looked at the nurses around her at the hospital and felt protected. “They looked like angels,” Cowan said. “The entire room felt sacred.”
Multiple streams contributed to the formation of the Jewish healing movement, according to Ellen M. Umansky, a professor of Judaic studies at Fairfield University who has written about spiritual healing and American Jews. Jewish healing is drawing upon older American traditions that teach people that “positive thinking” has a real power over physical health. In one of its more dramatic expressions, this is seen in religious traditions like Christian Science. The New Age influence of the 1970s spiritual counterculture, which saw Jews experimenting with new religious traditions, was also still rippling through the community. And a growing number of female Jewish leaders emerging in the 1980s, like Cowan, were interested in the idea of creating new liturgy or adapting old forms to contemporary life.
Cowan and members of the center stress that their approach to healing should not be seen as eschewing conventional medicine — or even as reflecting belief in a supernatural God that intercedes on their behalf.
“I don’t believe that the hand of God will reach down from above,” Cowan said.
“We’re not promoting a ‘throw-away-your-crutches’ healing,” Weintraub said.
“I don’t think that all of these things make a miracle happen on high,” Goldstein said. “I don’t think this is going to intervene in a way that medicine can’t.”
But they still pray. “For this community, they see spiritual healing as a compliment to medicine,” Umansky said. “And they believe that through prayer they can raise a healing, positive energy.”
Cowan has dialed back her activity in Jewish circles, but not entirely. As recently as this month, she was at the popular synagogue B’nai Jeshurun co-leading a service on mindfulness. She meditates every morning and takes the days as they come.
“When I was diagnosed, I told the doctor: ‘I want one more year of life,’” she said. “And so far, I have almost a year.”
Sam Kestenbaum is a contributing editor and former staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum.