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Rachel Cowan’s Lesson Before Dying
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Rachel Cowan’s Lesson Before Dying

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

Rachel Cowan, center, in new documentary.
Josh Treadaway
Rachel Cowan, center, in new documentary. Josh Treadaway

Throughout her life, Rabbi Rachel Cowan spearheaded movements and innovated spiritual approaches to Jewish life. When she faced the brain cancer that caused her death in 2018, she again had much to teach others.

A new film, “Dying Doesn’t Feel Like What I’m Doing” by documentarian Paula Weiman-Kelman that chronicles the last 18 months of Cowan’s life, premieres at Barnard College’s Athena Film Festival (March 1) and at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan (March 2).

Weiman-Kelman, who lives in Jerusalem and first met Cowan in the 1970s, had been working on a film about Cowan for several years and after Cowan’s diagnosis, they agreed to keep filming and turn the focus to her cancer and, possibly, to her dying. Rabbi Cowan, a woman who was loving and beloved, says in the film that “the world didn’t need another memoir,” but she had things to say.

Rabbi Cowan understood that she had a talent for seeing situations close to her that needed change, and not only envisioning something better, but organizing to make communal solutions happen. When her children were young in the 1970s, she and others (she’d always credit others) created a parent cooperative, Purple Circle Early Childhood Program School. Later, she helped create the Jewish Healing Center, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and co-wrote a book on “Wise Aging.”

Now,  as seen in the film, through the example of her life she shows others how to face death mindfully, to find meaning in their days and to continue experiencing gratitude and compassion.

“The best preparation is opening to love and just to be with friends who love you,” Rabbi Cowan says.

Weiman-Kelman pauses her camera on the birds Rabbi Cowan loved, the artwork and flowers in her Riverside Drive apartment and the faces of people meditating along with her, lending the film an unusual soulful quality.

The filmmaker also includes rare footage of the rabbi and her late husband, the journalist Paul Cowan (author of “An Orphan in History”), as activists in the civil rights movement and then as Peace Corps workers in Ecuador, sharing a lifelong passion for social justice. Rabbi Cowan, a Jew by choice, also reflects on her path of searching.

Toward the end of the film, Rabbi Cowan is seen in healthier days, dancing joyfully with a rainbow-colored umbrella along a Jerusalem street. As she says she would like her gravestone to read, “Her spirit lives on.”

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