For Sarah Jampolsky Cohen, growing up Jewish in her hometown of Overland Park, Kansas, meant going to Hebrew school once a week. “I thought being Jewish was something you were born into, and I didn’t really know what it meant,” she said.
All that started to change at the beginning of 7th grade, when she switched from public school to the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy , a non-denominational Jewish school where she was able to learn more about Judaism, Hebrew and the state of Israel. Interested in learning more, she decided to attend a Junior NCSY Shabbaton. It was the first time she had encountered Torah observant Jews and was intrigued by their lifestyle.
In 2004, when she was graduating 8th grade, Sarah heard about TJJ, which was advertised as a highly subsidized summer program for only $1,000, touring for one week in Prague, followed by four weeks in Israel. She jumped at the opportunity to explore her Jewish roots and went with a group of friends from her area.
Though Sarah was one of the youngest on the trip, she felt an immediate connection to her college-age advisors, many of whom she is still in touch with today, 14 years later. It wasn’t one specific moment, but the TJJ trip as a whole — the fun and engaging activities, meaningful conversations, and opportunities to learn and connect with people — that really impacted her.
“I had never been in that kind of atmosphere before, and it was so inspiring to see how passionate the advisors were about Torah and mitzvot,” she said. “I hadn’t thought this was something within my reach, and then I realized I could do it too.”
After TJJ, Sarah started keeping kosher and observing Shabbat, and became a board member for Kansas City NCSY. Todd Cohn, the Kansas City director at the time, served as a tremendous role model and helped guide her as she began her religious journey. “He took me in, and I went to his house for Shabbos all the time and spent a lot of time with his family,” she said.
The summer after 9th grade, Sarah went on NCSY’s Italy Israel trip, spending two weeks in Italy and two weeks in Israel, further strengthening her Jewish identity.
“I still had a lot of growing to do, and it was a slow process, learning all about halacha and expanding my knowledge of Torah and mitzvot,” she said. “But I was very close with my advisors and they were a huge support to me.”
One of those advisors was Elli Klapper, who is still a good friend of hers today. “Sarah came on TJJ knowing little to nothing about Yiddishkeit, and to see how she’s grown over the years is astonishing,” said Elli, who was an advisor on TJJ and Italy Israel, as well as for the New York, New Jersey, Midwest, West Coast and Atlantic Seaboard regions. “Sarah gained so much from TJJ, and it was really a springboard for her growth over the last decade and a half. She’s an incredible person who’s doing amazing things for Klal Yisrael and truly embodies all that NCSY stands for.”
In the middle of 10th grade, Sarah’s family moved to Chicago. She struggled to find a Modern Orthodox all-girls school where she would feel comfortable, and chose to attend the Block Yeshiva High School for Girls in Saint Louis, Missouri, where she dormed. Of course, she soon became involved in Saint Louis NCSY, as well as Midwest NCSY, organizing onegs, chesed projects and shabbatons, and building close relationships with her advisors and directors there as well. In 11th grade, she served on the regional board, and the following year, she became national president of NCSY, which was “an incredible experience that allowed me to visit some of the other regions,” she said.
After high school, Sarah attended Darchei Bina seminary in Israel, and Stern College, where she majored in Judaic studies. Today, she works as a nurse, and she and her husband, Rabbi Yaakov Cohen, live in Chicago with their two sons. Last year, Yaakov worked for NCSY as director of the North Shore chapter, and was also in charge of educational programming for the region.
Looking back, Sarah is grateful to TJJ for being the foundation of her personal journey to becoming fully observant. “All my religious growth and experiences can be traced back to TJJ,” she said. “Each thing that I learned that summer was a stepping stone that led me to the path I am on today and helped guide my future decisions.”