Remembering Rabbi Rachel Cowan
Reflections from friends, colleagues, and partners
As an extension of our announcement about the Rachel Cowan Scholarship Fund, we prepared a collection of reflections from the Nathan Cummings Foundation (NCF) board and staff, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS); and Rachel’s colleagues, friends, and partners on her many contributions to the Jewish community and its deep-rooted connection to social justice movements. She served as a Program Director for Jewish Life at NCF from 1990 to 2003 and as Executive Director of IJS from 2004 to 2011. Rachel passed away in August 2018 following a battle with brain cancer. We feel truly blessed to have had her with us for such a meaningful and significant part of our lives, and we are all better for having connected with her. May her memory be a blessing.
Ruth Cummings, Trustee, Board Chair, Nathan Cummings Foundation
Rachel changed Jewish life in America and in Israel and more close to home, among the family trustees at NCF. With other leaders who she identified through her work at NCF and joined in the field, she was a passionate and compassionate proponent for social transformations that reached diverse communities by tapping Jewish spiritual wisdom as a source for new thinking and practice. Her steadfastness, humility, acceptance and sense of humor kept us all on the path towards change for the betterment of all people. She was a prophet, teacher and healer. It was a privilege and honor to know her, and work with her, and we are all better for having connected with her. She will be missed. Her legacy will continue to light our way.
James Cummings, Trustee, Nathan Cummings Foundation
My heart is more open thanks to Rachel, my soul becomes more nourished when thinking about times we shared together. I felt elevated when spending time with her whether walking in Manhattan or in Moscow, learning in Jericho or in Jerusalem, sipping tea in her apartment, in a Bedouin tent or in Berdichev. Rachel leaves indelible openings to deeper, higher and more meaningful ways of interacting. She opened a door for me, bringing me to the open tent Judaism of Sarah and Abraham, accessible, expansive, loving, meaningful, infused with compassion and social justice. Bearing witness to Rachel’s personal growth from a heart-shattered, young widow into a powerful, sensitive, humble loving global tsunami of rabbinic possibility, many have participated, many more will continue to bear fruits from her wisdom. She is already deeply missed, fortunately her legacy continues to expand exponentially. She has brought each of us to a deeper understanding of love, compassion and service.
Sonia Cummings, Trustee, Nathan Cummings Foundation
Rachel leaves a strong mark on those who were privileged to know her at NCF. Personally, she contributed in shaping my perception and understanding of Israel, its complexities and its potential, and certainly impacted some of my engagement in Jewish Life. Rachel had this amazing curiosity and openness to all. She helped us be co-creators in so many areas of Jewish life, social justice, contemplative practice, in foreseeing the impact of environmental degradation and its potential resolves in Israel and the region. She studied and observed from all denominations to pave the way for greater impact and inclusivity, was attentive to all, guiding, advising, mentoring prospective grassroots or aspiring grantees. What a great leader! Her time at NCF for me was a very rich intellectual period when I was constantly stimulated by the amazing program she helped shape. Rachel was a teacher, builder, mentor, rabbi, always humble and caring about justice for all. It was a privilege to have known her and share some unique times. While it is indeed hard to believe she is gone, she leaves her mark in so many spheres that have had so many ripples in the Jewish world and beyond. I believe we continue to learn from her today and we can best honor her by sustaining her sense of respect, humility and inclusivity to make our world a better place. May she now rest in peace next to her beloved husband.
Sharon Alpert, President, CEO and Independent Trustee, Nathan Cummings Foundation
Rachel Cowan was visionary, inspiring, and soulful. She touched people deeply and believed in the power, and necessity, of individuals to change systems. Long before I became President of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Rachel’s work to support new paths of spirituality and inter-faith relations at NCF had touched and shaped my life. I was in my early twenties when I discovered the Jew and the Lotus, a book that chronicled a historic meeting between the Dalai Lama and a small group of Jewish rabbis, mystics, and progressive thinkers who he invited to discuss the secrets to the spiritual survival of a people living in exile for generations. I was on my own journey exploring my Jewish identity & my spiritual connections to the work of social justice. I only learned during the CEO search process that it was because of NCF’s support that the book was written. For me, it was a sign.
When I became President of NCF, Rachel was one of the people I met with on my listening tour, to deepen my understanding of the impact of our past work and how that set the groundwork for what we needed to be doing now. She was a source of inspiration as I came to see NCF’s unique role as a Foundation rooted in the Jewish tradition of social justice that is willing to invest in the voices, creativity, and cultural leadership needed to build solidarity around race, ethnicity, and gender and confront racial and economic inequality and the climate crisis. She was incredibly generous with her time and her wisdom.
Rachel also took seriously the power and the privilege that we hold in philanthropy and the change in the world that is possible when we are willing to take risks. And she was not afraid to both push and encourage people to be as bold as they could be. Not long after I started, and the new Administration began to challenge our values and our mission with actions like the Muslim ban, I got a note from her. She wrote to me “what a time to have stepped into your job! As Mordechai said to Esther, for this you have been born.” Those words will stick with me forever.
Isaac Luria, Director, Voice, Creativity and Culture, Nathan Cummings Foundation
As a child of an interfaith couple, a Jewish organizer committed to social justice, and a Jewish person involved in enlivening Jewish life through meditation, embodied practice, song, and other techniques, Rachel Cowan helped to pave the way for my own passions through her work with the Nathan Cummings Foundation and in other areas of her life. Many progressive Jews who came of age in the 2000s like me have benefited from Rachel’s vision, creativity, and leadership. We owe her an incredible debt. As we look forward to the future of Jewish life and Jewish-led efforts for social change, I know that Rachel’s imprint on our field will always be with us. I hope that her spirit continues to live on in the way we do the work of healing and justice in the decades to come. I am overflowing with gratitude for the life she lived and all that she offered our world. I will think of her often.
Larry Schwartz – Founding Board Chair, Institute for Jewish Spirituality
I am so grateful to have had Rachel as my teacher, colleague and friend. I first met Rachel 20 years ago in her apartment with a group of folks in the first lay cohort of what was to become the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. Rachel and Rabbi Nancy Flam opened up a new world to me and all the other participants. I realized I was a seeker and had always been. What a gift Rachel gave to me and all of us. She and Nancy created a safe space where we could go inside ourselves while opening ourselves to Jewish text, practices and meditation. We shared our insights, questions and yearnings together. My life was forever changed. Rachel with her wise, frank and heartfelt openness was both teacher and participant. A model I had never experienced before.
We became colleagues when she asked me to become the Chair of IJS several years later and she became the Executive Director. It was a wonderful partnership. I learned many things from Rachel throughout our years together. One was how Jewish spirituality could be instrumental in creating a more just world. The other was the importance of having women led organizations. The Institute would not be where it is today without Rachel’s, Nancy’s, Rabbi Sheila Weinberg’s and Rabbi Lisa Goldstein’s leadership. The Jewish spirituality that was taught, cultivated and explored was deeply influenced by these female leaders. The creating of safe spaces so that people could go deep inside themselves, the participant/teacher model, the teaching in pairs, the ability to cultivate openness and love were just some of the characteristics of that leadership.
Over the years Rachel and I became good friends. We shared life’s joys and sorrows with each other. One day when I was visiting Rachel after she became sick we were talking and the idea arose of having a meditation sit twice a week at her apartment as a way of supporting her and building a meditation group. The format evolved and we took our cues from Rachel. Once again, she became our participant/teacher. She was learning and teaching us how to die. It was not easy of course. She had her pain, fear and worry along with moments of triumph and joy. It was a roller coaster. She shared so much of herself with courage, vulnerability and humility. Over time she cultivated tremendous love that radiated from her to everyone who sat with her. I will never forget the experience of that love. Everyone felt it as soon as they entered the room. The love was still in that room after Rachel died where we continued to sit during the thirty days. The love and what she taught us remain in my and so many hearts today.
Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg – Founding Faculty, Institute for Jewish Spirituality
Rachel believed in people. Rachel saw the spark of uniqueness in so many people and she encouraged us to go beyond our self-limiting ideas and let the spark grow. This is one of the ways I, and so many others remember Rachel. Some years ago, Rachel said to me, “Sheila, you need to teach other people how to do what you do. You need to teach other people to teach mindfulness in a Jewish idiom and context. It is really important.” My first response was doubt. “I don’t know how to do that.” I said. Rachel responded, “You will figure it out. You need to do it. It will be of value.” So started an ongoing project which turned into the Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training Program of IJS. The fifth cohort will conclude this Summer, 2019, and there will be about 250 clergy and lay Jews trained as Jewish mindfulness teachers offering classes, leading groups and retreats throughout the country and abroad at synagogues, Jewish centers, agencies and even the White House (under Obama!). Rachel herself became a student in the third cohort. I was honored to be her mentor (and she did the homework)! She became a leader in this field in her 70’s.
Another time Rachel said to me, “Sheila, you should write a book.” “A book? Are you kidding? What would I write about?” “Really Sheila, you have so much to share. I am sure it would be wonderful.” The truth is, it wasn’t something I thought I should or could do but with Rachel’s insight, clarity and inspiration and my own willingness, through experience, to know I had better listen to her, I wrote two books. I am proud of them. I am so grateful to Rachel.
Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, Executive Director, Institute for Jewish Spirituality
Just after I had applied for the position of Executive Director at IJS, I ran into Rachel at a conference. “Are you seriously interested in the position?” she asked me eagerly. “That would be so wonderful!” The truth was that Rachel didn’t really know me very well at that point. We had been at a few IJS retreats together, but we had never had an in-depth one-on-one conversation. But from the very beginning she decided that I would be wonderful. And that was the story she stuck to. She told me over and over again, in public and in private over the course of seven years what a good job I was doing and how proud she was of having me as her successor. That was Rachel: assuming the best of the people around her and giving them the opportunity to shine.
I also remember speaking about prayer with her on many occasions. We shared with each other how easy it was for us both to find God in nature. She took me birding with her in Central Park and beamed when she shared photos and stories from her contemplative kayaking excursions in Alaska; I shared hiking photos and stories with her. She confessed that liturgical prayer sometimes left her dry. But as time went by, particularly as she deepened her practice during her final illness, the idea of prayer being transformative, that it could be a practice, grew new traction. She told me how she was coming to understand God as the love that is freely available, that connects all things, and how prayer is a way of aligning ourselves with that love. It opened new doors of connection and comfort for her and for me, as well.
Dorian Goldman, Founding Board Member, Institute for Jewish Spirituality
Rachel was a teacher and a mentor on my journey in life. She had a way of being in the world that not only loved it, but breathed it in. Whether she was looking at a bird, a wild flower, or another human being. She truly saw the face of G-d in another. And being with her opened me/others to experiencing the world in that way too.
As a friend she was always there for you. Willing to see you, where you were and support and hold you, through whatever transition or experience you were going through at the time.
Rachel was also a visionary, and a creator. If she felt something was needed in her life, she knew it was missing in the world for others as well. She then went about creating it. The Institute for Jewish Spirituality was just one of those many gifts she gave us.
As 20th century Jews were searching for a spiritual home, often flocking to Buddhism, she knew the Jewish tradition had a contemplative and deep spiritual component that had just been ‘left’ or ‘lost’ along the way. Again, she partnered with other visionaries, dug deep into the tradition, and made visible and accessible, a beautiful and meaningful contemplative Judaism which is speaking to and embracing so many Jewish seekers now, into the 21st century.
The full effect of the birth of this organization, I believe may not be fully known or realized for years/generations to come. Rachel’s life and spirit was a gift to all who knew her. But she was also a gift to so many more who will know ‘the work of her hands’, having never known her. I miss her in life, but her life’s work will carry on well beyond her days on earth.
Valerie Boucard, Program Associate, Nathan Cummings Foundation
I’m so sorry to learn about Rachel’s passing, she was a giant in the world. I’m quite sure she had no idea but she and her work had a profound impact on me when I was just starting out. On 9/11 in 2001 after the planes hit, several us were crowded in Annette’s (now Shelly’s) office, holding hands in shock. It was a chaotic day to say the least and at some point Rachel led us in a prayer, Annette sang a song, eventually we all left the office. Later that week I saw Rachel on PBS – wearing the clothes she had on on Tuesday – speaking with an Imam, a priest and a minister about how they could work together to foster peace in their congregations and communities in the face of anti-Muslim backlash and fear. Rachel was a person who didn’t go home in the midst of all that, with downtown on fire she walked straight to Bill Moyers studio to work towards peace in solidarity with other faith leaders. I am so grateful for her kindness, unshakable commitment and her courage, which have continued to inspire me to this day. She left an incredible legacy but she also quietly touched countless people along the way who are changed by her being in the world.
Shifra Bronznick, Social Change Strategist, NCF Consultant
Right now, when we are all thinking deeply about the ways in which power is used and abused, and of how to shift from a culture of “power over” to “power with,” I am reflecting on lessons learned from Rachel Cowan.
It has become a cliché of foundation professional life to say: “The problem is that when you are a foundation program officer, you are always automatically treated as the smartest person in the room – but that designation lasts only as long as your job.”
I had the honor of working with Rachel as a strategy partner, and I saw her work firsthand and up close. One of Rachel’s special qualities was that while she recognized that people might treat her well because they hoped that she would give their organization a grant, that never made her back away from treating people well in turn.
She did not feel compelled to erect boundaries between herself as a program officer that would separate her from her grantees. She housed them, counseled them, confided in them and was transparent in sharing her dreams, aspirations, challenges and frustrations – some of which ultimately became failed experiments, while others became lifechanging initiatives.
No matter what the result, the process was open hearted and open minded, truthful and tactful, as she joined with grantees in the humble pursuit of audacious goals. The loving kindness she showed her grantee partners was matched by the gentle and generous ways she turned down projects. As one of those folks told me, “the way Rachel said ‘no’ was better than the experience of many other yeses.” She listened deeply and made you feel understood and valued.
Much has been said about Rachel’s capacity for wholesale, large scale social change and about the wisdom she shared with hundreds of individuals whose lives were influenced by Rachel’s teachings. I will share here just one such story of the how she changed my intimate experience of the sacred.
When my 18-year-old son was going to China for a year to participate in an immersive bridge year program where he would live with a Chinese family who spoke no English, a year when I would not be allowed to see him, I was overwhelmed with anxiety. I called Rachel and asked for help. “I don’t want to send Coby off for the year filled with this kind of fear, which I know he will feel even if I try to cover it up.”
She came over to my apartment a few hours later with a mindfulness book, a tape and a clear set of instructions about how I might meditate for ten minutes each morning. While I am still a delinquent meditator, after our conversation, inspired by Rachel, I sat down and had a heart to heart talk with God. And, in focusing deeply, I literally felt God’s presence in my life and watched in awe as God lifted my anxieties off my soul.
This soul shifting work is what engaged Rachel at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and it her life. It was what fueled her lifelong commitment to social justice which was inseparable from her enduring belief that each one of us could make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of others. This faith was the source of her power and an essential resource for people, leaders, organizations, networks and movements.
David Neil, former Program Assistant, Jewish Life & Values
Working for Rachel Cowan at the Nathan Cummings Foundation was an honor. Rachel was so smart, a visionary with a calming presence. She was always positive and inclusive. Her smile was contagious, as was her laughter. And she had so much empathy! Everyone wanted to connect with Rachel because of her warmth. So much so that at times I was unsure if I was a foundation program assistant or a bed and breakfast manager of her Upper West Side apartment for thought leaders and social change agents. Rachel and I had a lot of fun working together. While I was thirty-five years her junior, we formed a special bond that transcended time and space. I will always cherish my memories of Rachel, especially her officiating my wedding in 2004 and the many thought provoking conversations we had over an 18 year friendship. Rachel was the coolest. I miss her greatly, but am forever grateful to have been influenced by her teachings and love…
Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, former Program Director – Jewish Live & Values
I was blessed to have Rachel as a colleague, mentor, and friend. Much has been written (and will be written) about Rachel’s unusual and powerful life, the unbelievable number of people whose lives she touched, and the impact she had through her work. She also was perhaps the most beloved person I have ever known. Rachel is someone who had a tremendous impact on the world and loved widely and deeply in ways that were felt by virtually everyone who had the privilege of knowing her. It sounds so simple. But honestly some people have impact on the larger world at the scale that Rachel did, and some people approach everything they do and experience with genuine love and kindness and make the people they encounter feel loved. But, in my experience, few people are able to do both at the scale that Rachel did. There are many things to learn from Rachel, but for me this lies at the core. I marvel at how she did this with grace and vision, humility and heart. When Rachel approached me about applying to succeed her at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, I was both honored and appropriately intimidated. How in the world does one follow Rachel Cowan?! In fact, the role and the Foundation were so associated in the Jewish community with Rachel that it was not unusual for her to be referred to mistakenly as Rachel Cummings! She loved the Foundation — the Board, the family, the staff, the grantees, and the partners. Yet, Rachel modeled exquisitely how to transition a role to the next generation. Over multiple meals, after I was hired, she shared generously the ins and outs of her experience and insights. At one dinner I remember her drawing a family tree on the back of a napkin, explaining to me the web of relationships and who cared most about which issues. She shared with me her hopes for various organizations and initiatives. Then she did the most remarkable thing. She took a step back, empowered me to carry the work forward, and made clear that she understood that might include some new directions. She did not only give me her blessing, she offered her support both privately and publicly. I know from subsequent conversations and writing that leaving the Foundation was personally challenging. But like everything Rachel did, she did it with generosity, integrity, and honesty. So much of my work at Cummings was built upon Rachel’s work. The last time I sat with Rachel she was really no longer verbal. As I shared with her how much she has meant in my life and reflected on her impact through Cummings, she spoke. She looked up and said “We did a lot of work.” Indeed, Rachel’s work has changed the Jewish communal landscape in so many ways, and I am immensely grateful to have had the opportunity, like so many of us, to be touched by it and build upon it. At her request, Rachel’s memorial service ended with everyone singing We Shall Overcome. Indeed, we can honor her by carrying on her work so that we may, one day, overcome.
Finally, beyond our work, Rachel and I shared a friendship. We enjoyed each other’s families and relished our shared identity as Yankee Jews with New England sensibilities. (Needless to say, Rachel’s roots go back many more generations!) We even went to the same rustic, all girls Quaker camp in Vermont, coming of age in the woods – in the ‘50s and ‘70s respectively – with politics, feminism, and folk music! It was such a joy over the years to sit together to share our lives and work, our hopes and fears. I am grateful to have been one of the many people who was welcomed into her beautiful home for interesting conversation, shabbat meals, and meditation. It is hard to imagine the world without Rachel. Her life has been a blessing to so many of us. In fact, somehow, it feels wrong to say may her memory will be a blessing, for it is her life that will continue to be a blessing — her incredible impact in so many spheres and her open-hearted love. Thank you, Rachel, for your mentorship, partnership, friendship and love. I miss you already.
Karen Garrett, former Senior Program Assistant and Exhibit Coordinator – Arts & Culture
I had the privilege of meeting Rabbi Rachel Cowan in 2010, when I joined the staff of the National Cummings Foundation. At that time, there were three female program directors: Claudine K. Brown – Arts and Culture; Andrea Kidd – Health; and Rachel Cowan – Jewish Life and Values. Collectively these women exemplified characteristics that included — but not limited to–strength, wisdom, mentorship, strategic thinking, passion, as well as expertise and deep knowledge within their respective fields.
Rachel was always willing to make time for open discussion and reflective practice. I specifically recall those precious lunch breaks when she would share how meditative and reflective practice could be used while eating, walking, and any other number of activities. The way in which she walked us through the process made it accessible and possible, even for those of us who were skeptics.
After the 911 tragedy, Rachel was on public television with leaders from other faiths engaged in a dialogue about how we could cope and find a way forward. It happened to be one of the limited number of television stations broadcasting in the days immediately following the event, and I found comfort in her presence and words of wisdom.
Elizabeth Greenstein, former Program Assistant, Jewish Life & Values
I have loads of memories from my four years of working with Rachel – mostly fun, a few exasperating (and generally involving her exceedingly long call log!), the majority meaningful. In thinking of her passing, I realize that so many of my friends and so many of the organizations and issues that I care about I was introduced to by Rachel. Social justice on college campuses, religious pluralism and environmental protection in Israel, spirituality and mindfulness everywhere, healing and hospital chaplaincy, intermarriage, next generation Jewish leadership, even bird-watching and which was the best jewelry shop in Jerusalem – her interests were broad, and her enthusiasm was infectious. I learned so much from her, and keep drawing on those lessons all these years later. One specific memory: In addition to everything else that has been said and written about her, Rachel was also a very fun and funny person. When I left Nathan Cummings, she gave me this photo, with a message on the back that read (in part), “I hope you get to work with someone else as attractive”! Zichrona l’vracha – may her memory be as a blessing.
Daniel Sokatch, Chief Executive Officer, New Israel Fund
Rabbi Rachel Cowan was the gentlest, fiercest, and most generous advocate for justice I ever met. If those qualities seem somewhat oxymoronic to you, then you never had the pleasure, honor, and profound good fortune of knowing Rachel. As the visionary Jewish Life grants officer of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, she helped transform the American Jewish community, nurturing and growing today’s vibrant and thriving Jewish social justice movement. And she helped transform the landscape in Israel, too, building a partnership between NCF and the New Israel Fund that enabled tens of thousands of Israelis to advocate, educate, and organize for a better Israel. And even as she was doing all of this, Rachel was pioneering the Jewish healing movement and, once she left NCF, leading the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. And while her impact was incredible, it is her kindness, wisdom, and keen strategic vision that I will miss the most. She was a dear friend and mentor to me, as she was to so many others. She was incredibly generous with her time and heart. I first met Rachel in 2000, shortly after I started as the founding executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance in Los Angeles (now a part of Bend the Arc). Rachel flew out to LA to meet with me and invited me to take a walk on the beach to talk about PJA. She asked me to apply for a grant and then patiently explained how to do that. We got the grant, and later that year, Rachel flew out to LA again for another walk and an invitation to apply for a second grant. What did I know? I sent in a grant proposal asking for the same amount. Rachel called me, and gently suggested that I might want to ask for a larger grant this time, which I did, and which we got. And so it was with Rachel; even as she did her job, she taught you how to do yours better. Suffice it to say, only Rachel could have convinced me, years later, to take the better part of a busy work week and go on a silent retreat for Jewish social justice activists. It was way out of my comfort zone, but that incredibly healing and restorative experience remains one of the highlights of my career. Rachel was the ultimate happy warrior, and more than anyone else I’ve ever known, it is her calm, cheerful, and inspirational example I most try to emulate. May her memory be a blessing, as was her life. And may 5779 be a year in which we rededicate ourselves to work for the values of kindness, justice, healing, and love that Rachel embodied.