Rabbi Rachel Cowan, the mother of Jewish healing, dead at 77

Rabbi Rachel Cowan and her husband Paul were vital in forging new paths for Jewish-American spiritual life.

Rabbi Rachel Cowan  (photo credit: YOUTUBE SCREENSHOT)
Rabbi Rachel Cowan
(photo credit: YOUTUBE SCREENSHOT)
Innovative Reform Rabbi Rachel Cowan, seen by many as “the mother of Jewish healing,” passed away from brain cancer on Friday at her home in Manhattan.
Cowan, who came from a Protestant family that traced its heritage to the Mayflower –  the English ship that brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock in 1620 – came to embrace the Jewish faith after 15 years of marriage to The Village Voice journalist and writer Paul Cowan.
Having been raised in a largely assimilated Jewish-American family, Paul Cowan wrote extensively for the New York weekly on the issues of civil rights and anti-war activism, and described his path to combine his American and Jewish identities in his 1982 autobiography An Orphan in History.
The Cowans became important in the re-emergence of Jewish spirituality and community life in New York and across the country. They focused their efforts on Ansche Chesed, the Upper West Side synagogue which, at times, was the home of five different Jewish communities.
The two co-authored a book In 1987 about the challenges and rewards of interfaith marriages titled Mixed Blessings.
After her conversion to Judaism in 1980, Rachel explored her new faith. In 1989 she was ordained as a Reform rabbi.
Paul passed away from leukemia in 1988.
While exploring spirituality and supporting her ailing husband, Rachel became aware of the need within the Jewish community for new insights and practices meant to comfort and aid the sick. She combined traditional Jewish texts, as well as tools taken from psychology and other spiritual traditions, to eventually create the Jewish Healing Center.
Jewish healing combines offering prayers for the sick, as well as their doctors, ritual baths, support groups for patients and their families, and the traditional Jewish practice of visiting the sick.
Jewish healing was eventually incorporated as a non-profit. By 1990, there were 36 such groups offering Jewish forms of healing across America.
Rachel served as the program director for Jewish life in the Nathan Cummings Foundation. In that capacity, she was involved with securing grants to explore new paths of spirituality and inter-faith relations. One of the conferences she helped create was hosted by the Dalai Lama, who invited Jewish spiritual leaders to learn from the Jewish perspective of living in diaspora and engage in Jewish-Buddhist dialog. The conference was described in Rodger Kamenetz’s 1994 book The Jew in the Lotus.
Rachel was diagnosed as suffering from brain cancer in 2016, and combined chemotherapy and the practices she helped shape and pioneer to combat the disease.
She is survived by her children, Matthew and Lisa, and four grandchildren.