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‘Our society does not value old age’
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‘Our society does not value old age’

Questions for Rabbi Rachel Cowan

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

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As a rabbi and former foundation executive, Rachel Cowan has a reputation for creating models where they didn’t exist before. She wrote about new approaches to interfaith marriage in the 1980s, she was among the founders of the Jewish healing movement and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, and, as program director for Jewish life at the Nathan Cummings Foundation from 1990 until 2003, championed liberal Jewish innovators.

In her latest book, Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience, & Experience — put out by Behrman House Publishing in Springfield in May — she focuses on another under-served population: the “8,000 people per day who turn 65.” Written with Jewish educator Dr. Linda Thal, it is a guide for groups and individuals seeking a more positive, spiritual guide to aging with spirit and wisdom.

She spoke with NJ Jewish News in advance of her appearance as scholar-in-residence at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, Oct. 23-25. 

NJJN: What is wise aging?

Cowan: It’s thinking about how to live in these years to maximize opportunity and develop the spiritual capacity for resilience whenever sad things happen — and they do happen. We can’t control when or what happens, but we can control the way we move through it. 

NJJN: How can we cultivate wise aging?

Cowan: Seeing life as a journey that does not diminish as we age. We live in an ageist society. It does not value old age. It does not create positive images of old age. People are afraid, so they pretend they are not aging. That is not maximizing opportunity. We [should] embrace it instead and say, “Look at my life, where can I go with this? How do I cultivate relationships? How do we become friends with ourselves, so we can be alone without being lonely?” 

It’s also learning not to hold onto grudges and regret, which only hurt us in the end. And it’s learning to accept what is real: “I have an illness. My husband did die. I have wrinkles. That’s not what I wished for, but it happened.” So I ask, “How can I live under these conditions without being defined by them?” 

NJJN: What was the inspiration for this work? 

Cowan: I was turning 69 and I did not want to spend my 70s doing the same things I did in my 50s and 60s. But I did not know what to do, and there were no models. I didn’t have any sense of the adventure of the 70s — what are the challenges and opportunities? 

NJJN: What is Jewish about wise aging? 

Cowan: As people get older, they find more relevance in religion. We often feel like the world shrinks as we get older. This allows you to see yourself in relationship to something much bigger. We are using Jewish texts to talk about aging. We are not trying to analyze the text but to waken something in people to illuminate their own lives. 

NJJN: Why did you decide to focus on JCCs and synagogues for implementing your program?

Cowan: Many synagogues and JCCs focus on young people and they kind of neglect older people. [Older] people start to think, “Why should I keep paying dues if no one pays attention to me? Wise aging makes Jewish institutions more relevant to [older] people who have a tremendous amount to offer.

NJJN: You seem to have a finger on the pulse of what is going on in the larger Jewish psyche: interfaith marriage in the ’80s, healing in the ’90s, spirituality and Jewish meditation in the 2000s, and now aging. Is there a common thread running through all these areas? 

Cowan: They are all things I had expectations for [in Judaism] but could find no resources, and I saw opportunity. I had huge positive feelings toward Judaism and no baggage when I converted in my 40s, but I saw things that puzzled me. Why was it so hard to convert to a religion that was losing people? I thought, “Here is an opportunity to change people’s attitudes.” 

When [my husband] Paul died, I had to ask, what kind of Jewish response is there for people facing illness and death? What kind of God do I want to turn to? That was crucial for me but there just weren’t good resources out there. 

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