Journey from Cheerleader to Jewish Youth Leader: Overland Park Teen is NCSY International President

29 Nov 2007

By Bayla Sheva Brenner

What could possibly compel a contented teenager from Overland Park to give up her blue jeans, class parties, and the cheerleading squad to become a shomer Shabbat (Sabbath observer), strictly kosher yeshiva girl? NCSY, the international youth program (the United States and Canada) of the Orthodox Union, enthusiastically takes the blame, and welcomes Sarah Jampolsky, 17, to her new position as NCSY’s International President. No one is more surprised by the transformation then the Kansas girl herself.

Growing up, Sarah thought that being Jewish meant getting to leave school early on Tuesdays to go to Hebrew school – something she didn’t particularly look forward to. She felt Jewishly identified, but never thought to ask what it all meant. “I thought it was just something one is born into,” says Sarah. Then a friend told her about an upcoming Junior NCSY Shabbaton (group event celebrating the Sabbath), in Des Moines. It sounded like fun; she decided to go. “It was a totally new world for me,” she says. “I didn’t know that Torah observant Jews even existed.”

According to Sarah, once she saw there were religious Jews out there, she started asking questions. Mostly though, she watched and liked what she saw. “The thing that interested me the most about the religious lifestyle was how observant Jews lived their lives,” says Sarah. She connected with an NCSY advisor, but remained uncertain as to whether all this applied to her life.

Her uncertainty didn’t last long. Three years ago, the summer before Sarah’s ninth grade year, she decided to go on TJJ (The Jerusalem Journey), an NCSY trip to Israel for public school students interested in exploring their roots. The group of high schoolers spent one week touring Prague and then four weeks in Israel. For Sarah, it was a life-changing summer; she was smitten with Yiddishkeit (Judaism). “It was so inspiring seeing how passionate the advisors were about Torah, and the kavannah (absorbed concentration) they had while davening (praying),” she says. “I hadn’t thought this was something within my reach. I realized I could do it too.”

Upon her return home, Sarah became a key board member of the NCSY chapter in Kansas City, a position she would hold in ninth and tenth grades. She also asked her parents if it would be okay if she stayed at her observant friend’s house that Shabbat. She asked again the next Shabbat, and the next. “They got the hint,” says Sarah. “After a few weeks of this, my parents put the house up on the market and decided to look for a house closer to the Orthodox synagogue. I’m very fortunate that they wanted to accommodate and support my decision. I know friends who don’t have such an easy time.”

A few months into keeping kosher, she decided to dress more modestly. She began wearing only skirts and tops with longer sleeves to school. These changes came with inevitable and sometimes uncomfortable consequences. “My friends and I just didn’t fit together anymore,” says Sarah. “The things they were doing, I wasn’t. I wanted to be learning Torah and be more exposed to a Torah lifestyle. I needed a new environment.”

Sensing her daughter’s increasing unhappiness in school and her enduring excitement about Torah learning, Sarah’s mother agreed to send her to the Block Yeshiva High School for Girls in St. Louis, where she is currently dorming. “I love my school,” says Sarah. “We have the most amazing rebbeim (rabbinic educators). Every day I’m learning Chumash (the Five Books of Moses), Navi (books of the prophets) and many other Judaic classes. It’s hard catching up, but at least I feel like I’m getting there.”

Sarah promptly brought her infectious enthusiasm for Judaism to the board of the NCSY chapter in St. Louis, where she organized onegs (festive Sabbath get-togethers), chesed projects (acts of kindness for the needy), and Shabbatonim. Rabbi Steven Burg, international director of NCSY, reports that Shabbaton attendance rose dramatically due to her involvement. In eleventh grade, she moved on to the Midwest regional board, assuming programmatic responsibility for the area’s surrounding states.

According to Rabbi Burg and Todd Cohn, Kansas City chapter advisor, Sarah has most definitely arrived – as an actively committed Jew and a sterling role model. Thrilled that she accepted the position as International President, they are both confident that NCSY has a booming future under her tutelage. “Sarah is extremely passionate about her Judaism and dedicated to her growth,” says Rabbi Burg, who first met Sarah at that fateful TJJ summer tour. “She’s a real leader and showed that in her chapter in Kansas City.” Her chapter advisor concurs. “Sarah’s love for Judaism and for life is contagious,” he says. “She approached her growth in observance in a healthy, strategic way; she had a goal in mind, and continued to strive step by step. Along the way, she brought her family and friends.”

The new International President says she’s happy to have this opportunity to give back to NCSY. “I don’t know where I’d be without them,” says Sarah. “I cannot express how important NCSY is to Jewish teenagers across the U.S.” She and Rabbi Burg agree that her first order of business is to unify all fourteen regions across North America. “I believe that if we create a strong national board, we’ll create a strong national NCSY identity. The goal is to bring NCSY back to a united national movement of 30,000 teens.”

After her tenure as president, Sarah hopes to continue her Torah learning at a seminary in Israel. Todd Cohn was right about her strategic side; Sarah already knows what she intends to do upon her return to the States. “I have no doubt in my mind that I want to be an advisor,” she says. “I would like to have an impact on NCSYers the way my advisors had on me, to give Jewish teenagers the opportunity to really see what a Torah life is and to nurture that.” She also aspires to build a Jewish home and “raise a family of bnei Torah (individuals loyal to Torah observance).”

Just a few years ago, this former cheerleader didn’t know observant Jews existed. Sarah feels forever grateful that NCSY showed her that indeed they do, and helped her ask the pivotal question: ‘Why not me?’