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Rachel Cowan’s wisdom on dying – and living – could help us now

The late rabbi, an influential mindfulness teacher whose final months I documented in a film, showed how despair is a luxury we cannot afford

I am writing this months into the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 is limiting human contact, forcing people to die and mourn alone, and exposing deep and deadly racial injustice.

Rachel Cowan would have much to say about all of this. Rachel was a lifelong activist who discovered that a spiritual practice nourished activism in the face of injustice and equanimity in the face of death. She would have shown how despair is a luxury we cannot afford.

Below is a photo of Rachel from a clip I stumbled on accidentally. I was searching for archival footage of civil rights volunteers in the 60’s. And there is Rachel, not identified but clearly identifiable, watching the news report of the murders, 66 years ago this week, of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney. She lifts her hands to her face in horror. The camera’s gaze is drawn to her.

Rachel Cowan

In later years Rachel said: “Working in the south was really frightening but it was one of those moments… What could I tell my grandchildren If I didn’t go?”

I am an American born, Jerusalem based, documentary filmmaker. Rachel traced her roots to the Mayflower and became the first woman convert to be ordained as a rabbi. We met through my father-in-law, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, who was a mentor to Rachel and her husband Village Voice journalist Paul Cowan. Rachel and Paul were a charismatic couple who met through the Civil Rights Movement. Their activism continued through the Peace Corps and the anti-war movement. They were instrumental in the Jewish revival on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Wolfe guided Rachel’s conversion to Judaism and supported her after Paul died at age 48 from leukemia.

I always wanted to make a film about Rachel but I was in no hurry. I captured bits of her life here and there — playing with her grandchildren or walking in the rain. I filmed her as a rabbi on an American Jewish World Service mission to Cambodia and Thailand where she taught compassionate listening. I filmed her with Dhammananda, the first female Buddhist monk ordained in Thailand. They shared the experience of being grandmothers running meditation centers. I thought that would be a wonderful film but again I thought there was no hurry.

In 2017, when Rachel had retired from the Institute of Jewish Spirituality and was concentrating on Wise Aging groups I finally decided that it was time to make the film. When I approached her she was at first hesitant. She said, “You want to make a movie. You think it is interesting. You are my friend. I will help you…and now I am just realizing, someone gives you a chance to reflect, talk, to do a life review… You are really lucky that someone wants to do that.”

We had great plans.

I was going to film her kayaking in Alaska, meditating in Costa Rica, and then on a trip to Israel/Palestine with the Encounter program. And then she was diagnosed with aggressive brain cancer.

I heard the news in my home in Israel – just after I had broken a toe. I literally hopped on a plane to get to her.

I asked Rachel if she wanted to continue working on the film. She replied: “You making this movie makes me feel good. Makes me feel like I am not so confined in this moment in time. And it means I don’t have to write my memoir…”

Many of the consequences of Rachel’s diagnosis prefigured the worldwide lockdown. She craved submersion in nature on a kayak in Alaska and was limited to walks in Riverside Park. She could no longer travel to the beloved places where she often taught — Israel, Alaska, Costa Rica… “Thank God for my mindfulness practice” Rachel would often say. It enabled her to find internally what she was denied externally.

Rachel died at home on August 31, 2018. At her funeral her sister Connie said,” I think that the siblings of a spiritual teacher aren’t likely to experience the qualities that make her a teacher or a leader.” That’s how I felt. I loved her and we had fun. I was aware of her growing reputation as an inspirational spiritual teacher but I was not aware of the extent of her impact until I accompanied her during her last year. I saw how her practice enabled her to live with gratitude and fortitude, and how her practice and presence elevated others.

Weeks after Rachel died, in September 2018, I was diagnosed with stage 1a lung cancer – a miraculously early diagnosis. I felt Rachel’s loving presence, and the lessons I learned from her, guiding me throughout my illness.

I miss Rachel. I feel blessed that I could make this film to share her teachings and to help her presence endure. Her spirit lives on.

“Dying Doesn’t Feel Like What I’m Doing,” a 60-minute film exploring the extraordinary life and last months of Rabbi Rachel Cowan, will be screened online, free of charge, Sunday, June 28 at 9:00pm-11:00pm Israel Daylight Time as part of the virtual festival, “Reimagine: Life, Loss, & Love,” and is hosted by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

About the Author
Paula Weiman-Kelman is veteran documentary filmmaker known for moving portraits of inspiring women. Her latest film, 'Dying Doesn’t Feel Like What I’m Doing,' explores the extraordinary life and last months of Rabbi Rachel Cowan. Paula's first film, 'Rites of Passage,' was a portrait of Israeli feminist icon and peace activist Alice Shalvi. Twenty years later she revisited her subject in 'The Re-annotated Alice.'
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