Righteous People, Righteous Work: Rabbi Rachel Cowan

When the history of twentieth and early twenty-first century American Jewry is written, Rabbi Rachel Cowan will be revealed to have been behind some of the most creative and pivotal Jewish revitalization efforts of our time. So, we turned to Cowan, our mentor and friend, for advice on finding meaning during periods of personal and communal change. Cowan, who co-developed a Wise Aging curriculum as co-founder of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, pointed to acceptance and love. “Love,” she says, “is everywhere in little pieces.” Here are more meaningful insights Rachel shared.

On how the Wise Aging program—which convenes workshops about what Jewish tradition has to say about aging and aging well (and which RPF supports)—began: 
“Linda Thal, who is a wonderful educator, was thinking about how all of adult education sort of stops at 50. Nobody was interested in all these incredibly important issues that came up later in life. So we began thinking about how we could include issues such as death and dying into what we were already doing. How could we include loss, and grief, and the possibility at this age for growth and self-discovery?
We developed the program around people carefully listening to each other. It was like being back in the Women’s Movement. We were exploring something together and we didn’t know where we were going, but we accepted as a principal that the topic of aging is rich in text and rich in personal experience. That left great room for exploration. 
A Wise Aging practice includes activism, meditation, and cultivation of the soul qualities. It also includes repairing relationships, understanding the idea of interdependence, and beginning to face death as a present prospect.

Old people want to feel they have something valuable to contribute, and without wisdom society is completely lost.”
On what she, herself, has learned with age:
“It’s all about having a loving, generous heart and personal relationships. It’s about being able to look back on your own life with kindness to yourself. Not carrying regrets and resentments makes your soul whole. The isolation between generations is just awful, but you need to go out of your way to connect. You can’t expect everyone to come to you. I would add that healing between parents and children is really important.”
On practicing Wise Aging in the face of being diagnosed with brain cancer at age 75:
“With a diagnosis of brain cancer, you receive constant statistics. Your chances are this. And then you have to keep telling yourself you’re not a statistic. And if you look into it, you see that there is a lot of evidence for will to live. There’s a lot in us that wants to stay alive, and we can recognize when that’s manifest and put our energy into it. 
The thing you have to radically learn is that you don’t have control. What you do have control over is how you respond to medical advice that is given, and then you can do some work on death and dying.
I’ve spent a lot of nights thinking about what I think about death. Sometimes I felt terrible grief at the idea that I would miss my family and my friends and my community. I went through unpleasant things like chemotherapy and at night I would think, What do I think is going to happen when I die? And for me, it was very obvious. There’s a prayer that’s said every morning: God the soul you have given me is pure, and you have planted it in me, and I am guarding it and I will return it to you when I die. To me, what that means is, We come from the Earth and we will go back to the Earth and we will be reintegrated into the energy of the universe having added in our lives quality to the soul that we have been given. I could think of beautiful things, and at the same time, I was terribly sad. But I would think about this prayer and then I would say to God, ‘I will return your soul to you, but not right away. I want to have some time left with my body.’
What’s my living-with attitude? What do I know about what it takes for me to live with hope and courage and a Wise Aging practice? Sticking with what I can do and believing in myself.

What I’ve learned most from this experience is the power of love. Love is everywhere in little pieces.”
On the future of activism: 
“We need a philosophy of wholeness. Where do we bring in love, and how do we do that? It’s just so important. So is compassion and a commitment to ethical morality and not getting caught up in anger and judging and attacking each other, because that has brought us down every time. We need to take time to build something, figuring all the time how it can be extended to more people. The student movement is telling kids that they have got to vote, and that is so important. If our generations get together, it would be really, really wonderful.” 

These excerpts have been edited and condensed for clarity.


Read more RPF grantee Q&As