The Jewish world lost an extraordinary leader at the end of August when Rabbi Rachel Cowan died. Most of the much-deserved tributes have focused on her contributions in the areas of social justice, Jewish healing, and Jewish spirituality and mindfulness. I would like to highlight something that has received less attention: Rachel Cowan’s leadership in efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly.
As Sandee Brawarsky wrote in the Jewish Week,
Rabbi Cowan successfully channeled her own life challenges and experiences into innovations in Jewish life for others — always a few steps ahead: A Jew by choice, she did outreach and teaching to those considering intermarriage and conversion, and wrote a book with Paul, Mixed Blessings: Overcoming the Stumbling Blocks in an Interfaith Marriage.
She was indeed a few steps ahead. Mixed Blessings appeared in 1988, not long after Egon Mayer’s Marriage Between Christians and Jews and the Reform movement built up its outreach efforts. Reading Mixed Blessings had a big impact on me. Rachel understood that interfaith couples wanted to understand and learn from the experiences of other couples like them. She understood that telling their stories, as she did in the book, and putting them together with other couples in structured discussion groups, as she did in her outreach work, would satisfy that need – and lead to more interfaith families being more Jewishly engaged.
I was honored and privileged to know Rachel. My first job in the Jewish world was at Jewish Family & Life! starting in 1999 as publisher of its InterfaithFamily.com web magazine. I got to know Rachel as a funder of JFL at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and she was always personally supportive from that point forward (the photo accompanying this post was taken at the 2007 Slingshot conference).
In November 2002 I wrote an essay for the Forward about how the Jewish world should respond to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey’s findings of continued high intermarriage. I referred to Rachel having said that “people can tell when their welcome in genuine.” All of these years later, after much back and forth about how to respond to intermarriage, I can see now that Rachel had zeroed in on the most important thing that is needed to engage interfaith families: attitudes and policies that are radically inclusive of them.
I will always treasure an email exchange I had with Rachel in December 2016. In response to a message about my transitioning from InterfaithFamily’s leadership, Rachel wrote “kol hakavod to you Ed. You had a dream, and you built it, and it is profoundly influencing contemporary American Jewish life!” I responded with “Thanks, that means a lot, coming from you. I am trying to write a book – when the time comes, I hope you’ll consider writing something for the cover.” Rachel responded with “no doubt I will.” Sadly, my forthcoming book was not far enough along to send to Rachel for comment before her terrible illness progressed too far.
I feel profound loss yet am inspired by how exceptional Rachel was in her many areas of interest and in the great impact she had on so many people both personally and more broadly. She belongs in a rarified league, along with Rabbi Alexander Schindler and Egon Mayer, as a pioneer in efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community. May her memory always be for a blessing.