NEW YORK — Rabbi Rachel Cowan, a Mayflower descendant who converted to Judaism and became a leading innovator in three nontraditional movements in that faith — helping couples navigate the shoals of mixed marriage, designing “healing services” to comfort the sick and dying, and injecting contemplative practices like meditation and mindfulness into religious life — died Friday at her home in New York. She was 77.
The cause was brain cancer, her family said.
Rabbi Cowan learned more than two years ago that she had cancer, and her friends held twice-weekly services of songs, psalms, and readings for her. A flavor of that healing movement was evident in one service: In the middle of a meditation, according to Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, executive director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, a frail Rabbi Cowan piped up, “You know, at my funeral I want you to sing ‘If I Had a Hammer.’ ” Her friends asked if she wanted to hear the tune at that moment; when she nodded yes, they broke out in song.
Rabbi Cowan and her husband, Paul Cowan, a writer and reporter for The Village Voice who grew up with little sense of his Jewish heritage, were 1960s civil rights and antiwar activists who began exploring Judaism in their mid-30s. Characteristically, they were never passive worshipers but became passionate movers in a Jewish revival on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that stressed more intimate, egalitarian, small-group circles rather than large temple services.
At one point, their synagogue, the once grand but then crumbling Ansche Chesed, housed five small congregations, each with its individual approach to worship and no rabbi. But as the congregations grew and realized that rabbis could enhance funerals and weddings and provide counseling, several of its members, including Rabbi Cowan, pursued ordination.
At a time when many Reform and Conservative rabbis were less than welcoming to gentile spouses, she and her husband carved a niche working with interfaith couples, running workshops where they listened to their conflicts and suggesting ways of grappling with them. The “time bombs” they cautioned about included friction with parents upset at family shifts, the complexities of handing down a single faith to a child by people of different backgrounds, and the lingering pulls of a discarded religion for the spouse who was not born Jewish. Together the Cowans wrote a book that eventually bore the title “Mixed Blessings: Overcoming the Stumbling Blocks in an Interfaith Marriage.”
After Paul Cowan died of leukemia in 1988, Rachel Cowan completed her studies at the Hebrew Union College’s Reform seminary. Feeling inadequacies in the religious response to her husband’s death, Rabbi Cowan the next year joined two female rabbis and two laywomen, all of whom had suffered grave illness or grief, in focusing on ways of enriching the traditional Jewish effort to comfort the sick and dying, which centers on “bikur cholim,” visits by synagogue groups or friends.
Drawing on traditional texts as well as secular literature, mental health approaches, and borrowings from other faiths, they cobbled together what they called healing services, which included songs, psalms, chants, ritual baths in a mikvah, and periods of meditation.
By 1996, according to Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub, rabbinic director of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services and its New York Jewish Healing Center, 36 cities had adopted healing programs.
“Rachel was one of the mothers, if not the mother of the movement,” Weintraub said. “She brought an outsider’s perspective that recognized the gaps in Jewish tradition.”
Rabbi Cowan was soft-spoken and deceptively unassuming; those who knew her were aware of the power of her steely determination, which helped her drive her acquired faith in new directions. She never took on a pulpit and for 14 years was program director for Jewish life of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, which provided grants encouraging new approaches in spirituality, social justice, aging, and interfaith relations. One conference, hosted by the Dalai Lama, brought rabbis together with Tibetan monks to discuss points of overlap.
She left in 2004 to run a program the foundation had fostered: the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, now located on West 27th Street in Manhattan, which organizes retreats for rabbis, cantors, educators, and ordinary congregants interested in enhancing their religious life with contemplative Eastern practices borrowed from the healing services like meditation, yoga, and mindfulness, as well as re-imagined concepts from within Judaism.
Goldstein, of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, explained why Rabbi Cowan gravitated toward the pioneering work she did.
“She was always a seeker, and things happened in her life to which the Jewish community had no adequate response,” she said.
The oldest of four children, she was born Rachel Ann Brown on May 29, 1941, in Princeton, N.J. Her father, Arthur Brown, who could trace his roots to the Mayflower, was a civilian mathematician for the Navy. Her mother, Margaret, had ties stretching back to Puritan days. Her parents were socialists skeptical of religion, though when the family moved to Wellesley, Mass. for Arthur’s management consulting job, they joined a Unitarian church.
Rachel attended Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and received a master’s in social work from the University of Chicago. In 1963, in Cambridge, Md., she tutored black children bound for newly integrated schools. There she met Paul Cowan, a Harvard graduate who was writing a magazine article on the civil rights movement.
He too was driven by social justice ideals and also had a faint religious background. His father, Louis, was a producer of television shows like “The $64,000 Question,” His mother, Pauline, came from the family that owned the Spiegel mail-order business. His parents, though nominally Jewish, sent Paul to Choate, an exclusive prep school where he was required to attend Christian chapel.
The Cowans, who married in 1965, registered black voters in Mississippi and served in the Peace Corps in Ecuador, an experience Rabbi Cowan described in her first book, “Growing Up Yanqui.” After his parents’ death in a hotel fire in 1976, Paul began to research his Jewish background, and Rachel, who had long been attracted to what she felt was the generous spirit of Jews, joined him in dipping into the faith.
Together they founded a school to teach children about Judaism and then became active at Ansche Chesed, where Rachel was for a time executive director. She converted in 1980.
She leaves a daughter, Lisa Cowan; a son, Matthew; two sisters, Constance Egleson and Margaret White; a brother, Richard; and four grandchildren.
In an interview last year with the newspaper The Forward, Rabbi Cowan described what it was like having to employ her ideas about healing after enduring rounds of chemotherapy.
“I thought I knew hard before,” she said. “But I had no idea what hard meant. Now I’m using all my healing practices to keep going, to stay alive.”