In the summer of 2001, I received a call from Rabbi Zalman Schachter. The JCC of the Upper West Side, being built in Manhattan, was planning on creating a meditation room. Would I join a group of Jewish meditators for a design session, to envision what a Jewish meditation room would look like? Rabbi Rachel Cowan was one of the participants. Amongst a flurry of wild ideas, Rachel was a center of calm and practicality, gracefully guiding the Center toward its center.
Rachel was an early leader forging the relationship between Jewish spirituality, contemplation, and the environment. She began taking Rabbis on weeklong, silent canoeing/ kayaking trips in the magnificent Pacific Northwest. A systems thinker, she saw that there was a systemic gap in the lack of contemplative training and support for Rabbis and Jewish community leaders, and became a funder and then the second executive director of The Institute for Jewish Spirituality, which she grew, integrating contemplation, social justice, environment, aging, and other critical issues of our times.
Rachel was an important Jewish spiritual resource for the Garrison Institute, holding retreats for Rabbis and others with us, and attending various other retreats. When Rabbi Zalman Schechter, one of our founding spiritual directors passed away, Rachel was the obvious replacement. We were so pleased that Rachel accepted our Insight + Impact Award in 2015.
When Rachel’s name would come up in conversation, one of the most common things I would hear is, “She married me because…”, and the “because” always had a story of love and tolerance in it, of finding fitness and joy, of Rachel celebrating peoples’ lives for who they really were, not who they were supposed to be.
Rachel had a reliability, and a care for others that made her deeply trusted by all. Everything about her was real–her friendship, her love, her way of being a partner…this made her expansive spiritual search feel like it reached out to the edge of the universe, but grounded in the here and now.
Rachel forged a pathway of spiritually grounded justice that is not complete. We can honor her life by taking its next steps.
–Jonathan F. P. Rose, Garrison Institute Board Co-Chair
We join so many across America and Israel in expressing our sadness at Rachel Cowan’s passing. Rachel changed Jewish life in America, in Israel, and more close to home, among the family trustees at the Nathan Cummings Foundation. With other leaders whom she identified through her work at the Nathan Cummings Foundation and joined in the field, she was a passionate and compassionate proponent for social transformation 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 still better for having connected with her.
With appreciation for the time we all spent with Rachel at the Garrison Institute.
–Ruth Cummings, Garrison Institute Board Member