‘I suddenly found myself here’
Nancy Cohen profile
The journey to Judaism of Temple Israel’s new president
|Nancy Cohen at Temple Israel. ‘I’ve always felt embraced, accepted, encouraged.’|
By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer
A few weeks into her role as president of the Dayton area’s oldest and largest Jewish congregation, Nancy Cohen sits in the lobby of Temple Israel and reflects on how it came about.
“It was 14 or 15 years ago that we joined,” she says. “If someone would have told me then that I would be president someday, I would have fallen over.”
Cohen grew up in Kettering and graduated from Fairmont East in 1976. She and her family were members of Westminster Presbyterian Church.
“Probably by the time I was a teenager, we were kind of dropping off and it wasn’t that important to me,” she says. “I was kind of ‘areligious’ I guess, but I always felt like there was something missing. I just didn’t know where I was going to find what I wanted.”
It was at Cornell University where she met her husband-to-be, Rich Cohen, from Albany.
“He had been brought up in an Orthodox synagogue and he very strongly identified as being Jewish,” she says. “That was very important to him, but he was not observant.”
When they decided to get married, she says, Rich was adamant that he wanted to be married by a rabbi.
“At that point I felt like, ‘Well, I’m not going to convert just to marry you.’ That didn’t feel authentic to me. It wasn’t where I was at that moment.”
Living in central Pennsylvania then, the couple had difficulty finding a rabbi willing to perform an interfaith marriage.
Ultimately, a Reform rabbi in Altoona agreed to talk with them.
“We met with him a number of times and not only was I intrigued by learning about Judaism, but I think it opened Rich’s eyes too,” Cohen recalls.
The rabbi agreed to marry them if they would raise their children as Jews.
“And that was fine with me,” Cohen says. She adds that her parents were also OK with it.
Rich’s father had passed away by the time they were engaged, but his mother, Cohen says, welcomed her. “She was a wonderful, loving woman who just loved me because I loved her son.”
The couple went about their lives, building their careers, not thinking much about Judaism.
But when their son, Daniel, was born, Cohen remembered her promise. By that time, they were living in Dayton. Cohen oversees the WIC federal program for Greene County.
“It just wasn’t a priority, but when you have a child, suddenly it is. We did some synagogue shopping and Temple Israel had a preschool on Sunday mornings, so we started bringing Daniel here and he just loved it. From the moment we said, ‘Hey, guess what? You’re Jewish!’ he just loved it.”
As Daniel was learning, his mother was too.
“It was feeling more meaningful to me and we started to meet people here. Despite the fact that I wasn’t Jewish, I just felt so welcome and so embraced by the congregation here. I know I felt intimidated initially. It was a little scary. But everybody said, ‘Come and sit with us at dinner.’ We felt accepted.”
Cohen says it was natural for her to sign up for a Hebrew class. She met a group of people with whom she is still friends, including Debbie DiSalvo, who urged her to become involved. She also took Temple Israel’s Basic Judaism class, just to learn more. “It seems like one step led to the next.”
Ten years ago, when Daniel was in first grade, Cohen decided to convert. She took the Basic Judaism class again, this time with Rich. Rabbi Marc Gruber oversaw her conversion process. He paired her with a mentor who had already become a Jew. Cohen, too, would serve as a mentor for someone who converted after her.
“I found myself swept up in all of this,” she says. Her involvement in Synagogue 2000, with the aim of making temple worship more meaningful, was a transformative experience for her.
With training from the Union for Reform Judaism, Temple Israel members will start a support group this summer for people undergoing the conversion process.
“That’s something I really urged us to get involved in.”