Leadership Transitions:
Rachel Cowan’s Legacy

By Rabbi Lisa Goldstein and Rabbi Jennie Rosenn

In the weeks following the too-early death of Rabbi Rachel Cowan z”l, there have been a handful of articles written about her pioneering spirit, her generous vision and the way she helped shape contemporary Jewish life in such diverse fields as healing, interfaith relationships, spirituality, aging and social change. We had a unique perspective on Rachel’s life and work: we were her successors, Jennie at the Nathan Cummings Foundation (NCF) and Lisa at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS).

Following a great leader can be a daunting task; the failure rate is high. But part of Rachel’s legacy is her torah on leadership transitions, and it helped us – and her – avoid common pitfalls. Reflecting on our experiences, we have distilled five specific practices which we want to share as a tribute to Rachel and in hopes that others can learn from them.

Self Awareness

Rachel cultivated a clear and fearless self-awareness. In her case, it was her mindfulness practice that helped her experience each moment openly and honestly, without harsh self-judgment or self-deception. In stepping down from a position, she did not pretend that she did not experience unpleasant feelings. In fact, when she left NCF, she often spoke forthrightly about her ambivalence about “giving away her power” as a funder and what it was like to go from giving away money to having to ask for it. Before she stepped down from IJS, she wrote an article in Sh’ma, reflecting on what she had learned leaving NCF and the fears that arose as she faced her new transition. Rachel’s self-awareness enabled her to deal with the inevitable losses and fears with wisdom.

Stepping into a New Role

Rachel found a new defined role for herself when she left both NCF and IJS, so that as she stepped out of one role, she was stepping into another. Interestingly, in both cases she remained connected to her former organization. When she left NCF, she went to IJS, a grantee of NCF, to become the executive director. And when she stepped down as executive director at IJS, she remained as a senior fellow, charged with developing the Wise Aging program. These shifts meant she had to engage with each of us in what could have felt like a diminished role. She was the grantee instead of the funder, a faculty member instead of the boss. But her specific, valuable, and chosen new roles meant they were not renunciations for her and made it easier to fully embrace the change gracefully.

Generous with Knowledge

Rachel was incredibly generous with her knowledge. She knew that she had information and relationships that were crucial to transfer to us if we were going to succeed. Jennie recalls a dinner at which Rachel drew a family tree of the Cummings family on the back of a napkin, explaining the web of relationships and who cared most about which issues, while Lisa remembers that her first days at IJS were spent at a retreat center with Rachel, poring over the lists of donors and foundations getting the inside scoop. It wasn’t just a one-time download. Rachel was always available for questions, and she gave honest, complete, and nuanced information.

Supportive of Change

Perhaps most radically, Rachel gave us both implicit and explicit permission to take things in new directions. In fact, she truly believed that change was not just inevitable, but important and good. She trusted that we shared her values and knew we had deep respect for her and what she had built. She also recognized the gifts that we have that she did not, and in our abilities to build upon her foundation. She understood her chapter as part of a larger whole. Because of her generous spirit, the changes we brought were not threatening to her and her legacy. She welcomed them with her blessing and pride.

Public and Private Support

Many leaders offer their successors official public support, but it often feels pro forma or even ingenuine. Not only did Rachel publicly verbalize her trust in us and excitement for our leadership, which mattered a lot with grantees, colleagues, and funders, but she truly did everything she could to transfer relationships and then get out of the way.

Conversely, some leaders privately support their successors but don’t want to put their reputation on the line or diminish themselves by publicly proclaiming the greatness of their successor. But Rachel did that too. “You are doing such a good job,” she would say repeatedly to both of us, even after we had been in our positions for years. She said it emphatically and with conviction, really believing that our success was her success.

We cannot all be Rachel Cowan. (Believe us, we know this well!) But we can all learn from the way Rachel lived and led. In a decade in which many great leaders will be passing the baton to the next generation, Rachel’s torah of transition is deeply relevant. Rachel’s legacy lies not only in what she accomplished and taught, but also in the way she moved out of her roles and set us up to build on her greatness. We are profoundly grateful to have been the recipients of Rachel’s torah and experience first hand how successful, graceful, and even profound leadership transitions can be. May we all merit to learn from Rachel’s life and from her legacy.

Rabbi Lisa Goldstein is the Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. Rabbi Jennie Rosenn is a Jewish social justice leader who was the Program Director for Jewish Life and Value at the Nathan Cummings Foundation from 2004-2012. She then served as Vice President for Community Engagement at HIAS and currently works as a strategy and organizational development consultant to Jewish and social change organizations and foundations.