Rabbi Rachel Cowan ’89, z”l - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
Skip to main content

Rabbi Rachel Cowan ’89, z”l

Main Content
Monday, September 3, 2018

Rabbi Rachel Cowan z"lThe Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion community mourns the death of our distinguished alumna and co-founder of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, Rabbi Rachel Cowan ‘89, who passed away just before Shabbat on August 31, 2018, from brain cancer. Services will be held on Tuesday, September 4 at 9:30 am, at B'nai Jeshurun, 257 West 88th Street between Broadway and West End Ave.

There will be three virtual minyans and you are invited to pay your respects and honor Rachel’s memory in these gatherings. The virtual minyans will be held on Tuesday, September 4 at 8:00 pm; Wednesday, September 5 at 9:00 am; and Thursday, September 6 at 12:00 noon. Instructions for how to connect are at the bottom of this message.

Rachel was a visionary activist in the Jewish community with an unfailing sense of how the needs that arose in her own life could be addressed to help others with the same needs. Rachel and her husband, Paul Cowan, literally wrote the book on interfaith marriages. Mixed Blessings: Untangling the Knots in Interfaith Marriage, published in 1988, served as a resource and guide for countless couples and their families, seeking to bring wisdom and compassion to interfaith families. After Paul's death, Rachel was ordained at HUC-JIR and became one of the founders of the Jewish healing movement, aiming to help others, who, like her, were seeking strength and comfort from Jewish tradition.

Later, as the Program Director for Jewish Life at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Rachel oversaw approximately $4 million in annual grant making, supporting innovative programs as diverse as environmental activism in Israel, serving women in the former Soviet Union and leadership programs for Jewish social justice activists.

But Rachel's greatest love was for the work she began with her friend and classmate, Rabbi Nancy Flam, at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. IJS was founded to bring contemplative Jewish spiritual practices to Jewish leaders with the goal of better equipping them to contribute to building Jewish communities that are vibrant and creative, and meaningfully address the brokenness of our world. At first Rachel served as the chief funder of IJS through the Nathan Cummings Foundation, but in 2004 she followed Nancy as the second Executive Director and created a vibrant, creative and collaborative organization.

Under Rachel's leadership, IJS expanded its programming to include in-depth offerings for lay seekers in addition to clergy, as well as a new cohort program for Jewish meditation teachers. Her signature contribution was IJS’s Wise Aging program, which she developed with Dr. Linda Thal. Rachel recognized, again from her own life experience, that as people reach the "third chapter" of their lives, they are seeking greater meaning and connection. Together with Linda, she wrote the seminal book, Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience and Spirit, and co-developed Wise Aging groups as a way of building supportive communities to explore the deep questions. After her official retirement as the Executive Director of IJS in 2011, she stayed on as a consultant to develop a program to train others to run these groups. Over 400 people have been trained so far and the program is thriving.

Rachel was the recipient of many honors, including being selected twice in Newsweek's Top 50 Rabbis list and three times in the Forward 50. She was awarded HUC-JIR’s President's Medallion at Jerusalem Academic Convocation on November 14, 2008, and presented the Ordination address at New York Investiture and Ordination on May 8, 2011 at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York. She received an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary. 

Rachel is survived by her two children, Lisa and Matt, their spouses, Jonathan and Diane, and four grandchildren, Jacob, Tessa, Dante and Miles, as well as her two sisters, Connie and Peggy, and brother, Richard.

May her family find comfort among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. 

How to log in/call in to the IJS Virtual Minyanim for Rachel: 

  • Join from PC, Mac, Linux, iOS or Android: https://zoom.us/j/8546705040
  • Or iPhone one-tap: US: +16468769923, 8546705040# or +16699006833, 8546705040#
  • Or Telephone:  Dial-in (for higher quality, dial a number based on your current location):  US: +1 646 876 9923 or +1 669 900 6833; Meeting ID: 854 670 5040; International numbers available: https://zoom.us/u/be3d6r

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu