By HANNAH WALLACH
At 30 years old, East Windsor resident Gaye Cohen submerged herself in water in the basement of an all girl’s school. She was naked, clean of any nail polish or makeup and a woman had checked beneath her nails for dirt. She was as bare as the day she was born.
Cohen was participating in a mikveh, or the ritual immersion required for one to convert to Judaism. Once she had gone completely under the water, the rabbi who had helped her to convert stood at the top of the stairs and told her to say the Shema prayer. This is the daily declaration of faith Jews often sing when they wake up and before they go to sleep.
“How did I feel? Like angels were lifting me up … It’s hard to explain, but I think the only times I ever felt like that was when I saw my children for the first time,” said Cohen.
Although she had been raised Catholic in Wichita, Texas, Cohen said she made an appointment with a rabbi to learn more about Judaism after her father passed away and she was “feeling an emptiness.” She had married Stuart Cohen, a Jewish man, when she was 21 and had converted her children to the religion when they were young.
Cohen, who had attended a Catholic school until fifth grade, said she lived in fear as the result of her religion. When she crossed her legs in fourth grade, a nun broke a yard stick over her legs because “ladies don’t sit like that.” Growing up during the Cuban Missile Crisis, she was told that bombs would come to her town and kill her unless she prayed to G-d.
“It was a scary way to grow up, and I didn’t want my kids growing up like that,” said Cohen. “In Judaism, you followed the way to become a good person, and that’s how you’re judged … That sounded really good to me.”
When Cohen herself converted years later, she said she did so not for her husband, children or the in-laws that did not accept her Catholic origins.
“Ive been asked if I should ever get divorced or I should be single again, would I go back to being Catholic? No,” she said. “I’m a Jew.”