January 8, 2004 - Newton Daily News Tribune: Ecuador RPCV Rachel Cowan embraces life as rabbi

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Ecuador: Peace Corps Ecuador : The Peace Corps in Ecuador: January 8, 2004 - Newton Daily News Tribune: Ecuador RPCV Rachel Cowan embraces life as rabbi

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Ecuador RPCV Rachel Cowan embraces life as rabbi

Read and comment on this story from the Newton Daily News Tribune on Rachel Cowan who converted to Judaism in 1980 and graduated from rabbinical school in 1989.

RPCVs from the 1960's will remember her as the author of "Growing Up Gringo" and her husband Paul Cowan as the author of "The Making of an Un-American," a seminal memoir of their civil rights work, their Peace Corps service in Ecuador and of their disillusionment with America during the Vietnam war. Read the story at:

Former Unitarian embraces life as rabbi*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.

Former Unitarian embraces life as rabbi

By Max Heuer / Tribune Correspondent
Thursday, January 8, 2004

WALTHAM -- When Rachel Cowan was a young girl growing up in a secular Unitarian family in Wellesley in the 1950s, she never dreamed she would return to the area an ordained rabbi.

"How was it that I got from Wellesley to here?" she asked students yesterday in the third installment of the Limud Clali lecture series at the Gann Academy in Waltham. "The idea that I would be Jewish, religious and a rabbi living in a co-op in Manhattan, who could possibly have imagined that?"

While she converted to Judaism in 1980 and graduated from rabbinical school in 1989, Cowan described her entire life as a series of moments that pushed her closer to embracing religious Jewish life.

Her parents helped the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization, expose anti-Semitic real estate practices in Wellesley, and Cowan recalled several other instances during her childhood when she was drawn to the Jewish faith.

"I do know that when I read the Diary of Anne Frank, I felt as if she was my friend," said Cowan.

While a civil rights activist in Maryland in 1964, her future husband, Paul Cowan, taught her the strength of the Jewish identity. Paul, she said, even as a secular Jew, felt a "moral imperative to change the world."

After serving in the Peace Corps together, the two wed and made sure to have "something Jewish in our wedding, because we wanted something Jewish in our life," Cowan said.

But at the time, it was unclear exactly what that something would be.

Cowan started the Havurah School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to teach Judaism to inter-faith families. Still, she said, it was confusing for her children to celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah.

In 1976, her husband's parents were killed in a fire at their home. After that day, Cowan said she began to re-evaluate her own life and, eventually, decided to convert.

"You don't have to prove God exists if you want to be a religious Jew," she said. "What I discovered was there aren't answers, there's the search....There are guides, teachers and wisdom."

While she was studying to become a rabbi at Hebrew Union College in New York, her husband was diagnosed with leukemia. He died after a year of fighting the disease.

Her experience over that period, she said, awakened her interest in "healing and what the Jewish faith has to comfort and heal."

Cowan served as the director of the Jewish Life Program in New York until December, when she became director of the Spirituality Institute in Northampton, a group that holds spiritual retreats for Jewish leaders.

"Rabbi Cowan has been at the forefront of every major trend of Judaism over the last 20 years," said Rabbi Julie Wolkoff, director of Judaic activities at Gann.

Cowan encouraged the students to seek out both Jews and non-Jews and "share with them what community means to you."

"Look for that spark, that's the essential teaching," she said. "Look for that and help it come alive."

Kimberly Keen, 18, a senior at Gann Academy, said, "It was hard enough for women who were Jewish to become rabbis then.

"I think that for someone who hasn't been Jewish her whole life...it was really strong of her."

Rachel Buonaiuto, 14, a freshman, felt a particular connection to Cowan's message. Buonaiuto's father converted to Judaism.

"It was kind of something I'm familiar with," she said. "It kind of made me feel really, really lucky."

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Ecuador; Religion; Jewish Issues



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