Rabbi Rachel Cowan, who died just before Shabbat began last week, 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 (NCF), 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.