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"Make a Change": A Jewish Teen Leader's Challenge

"Make a Change": A Jewish Teen Leader's Challenge

Sarah Friedman stands at a podium bearing the name NFTY Convention

As a kid, I always wondered why humans are as close as we are. Why we have this need to be together, why we cannot survive without one another, why we want to find that someone special and let ourselves drown in the love and affection they give. As I got older and wiser (which some would argue), I realized that it’s human instinct to  crave deep relation because we need connection. That’s what it’s about. 

But connection doesn’t have to be this huge thing. It can be small things, too, that make just as big of an impact.  

Think about the people you make eye contact with on the street. Do you smile at them? Or do you just look away? Whatever it may be, that’s a connection. Some good, some bad, some memorable, and some that just pass us by. 

It’s what you do with connection that matters most. If you make eye contact with that stranger and look away, it’s just a glance. But, if you do something with that glance, that’s an impact. If you smile at that stranger, you could make their day. Connections lead to impact.  

And impact leads to change.

I’ll tell you a story; let’s take it back to 2008. I was 8 years old, I had an underbite, I was missing my two of my front teeth, and I had pigtails like you’d never seen before. My mom dropped me off at my first day of cheerleading practice on a stale, August evening in my hometown of Hillsborough, New Jersey. I looked around at the other girls there and hid behind my mother.  

Change is scary. This was my first sport, and these were new people and new things I would be experiencing. I don’t blame 8-year-old Sarah for being kind of scared of what was to come. Little did I know how much of an impact cheerleading would have on my life. As I grew older, I stuck with it. I joined a competitive cheerleading team and made tons of friends.  

But when I reached seventh grade, my coach approached me with an opportunity, asking me to be a  “junior coach” (along with an adult coach) to a younger team. I jumped at coaching because I wanted to spread my love and passion for cheer to others. And also because I like kids. Y ouknow, they’re just so cute.  

After an interview, I was  offered a position coaching the cheerleading team for students with disabilities. I had grown up with some of the girls, and befriended them – they attended the same elementary school as me;  in 1st or 2nd grade, we played jump rope together during recess. I jumped at the chance to coach them because they were a part of my past that I knew could be part of my future.

Flash-forward a year and a half: Our cheer team was called the Gems, and we truly were the hidden gem of Hillsborough.

Soon, though, we’d be graduating cheerleading and moving on to high school. The December weather was cold but our hearts were warm as we said goodbye to our cheer team. We rejoiced together as we performed our dance one last time for the other cheerleaders and our parents – but after that day, it seemed cheer was over, not just for me as a coach and as a competitive cheerleader but for the students with disabilities as well.

Freshman year of high school was a breeze. Classes were pretty easy, I joined theatre, and I didn’t continue my cheerleading career, though I saw the girls from our squad around school from time to time. When our eyes met, their smiles lit up the halls. I missed them a lot.  

People always say that high school is when you find out who your true friends are, because people can grow apart or become closer. I didn’t want to grow apart from these girls my friends – so when one of the former Gems' moms asked if I wanted to help her put a team together, I  said yes. I met after school with her, a resource teacher who would soon become our coach, and a representative from The Sparkle Effect, the organization that helped kickstart our team.  

I was ecstatic to be a part of something so special that would help change our community. This cheer team wasn’t about creating something for people who didn’t have – it was about creating something for all of us to have together.  

Soon, the legacy of the Rockin’ Raiders began: an inclusive cheerleading team for students both with and without disabilities at our high school. We cheer at football, soccer, and basketball games, for boys' and girls' teams at our high school.

It hasn’t always been easy for us being part of such a huge change at our high school. Some typically developed students weren’t fully prepared for our team and what we had to offer – but because of the  kind hearts of most our students and staff, our team has been welcomed with open arms. As the years went on, we began to grow, and we are now 18 members strong. We perform our dance – which we all work very hard on – during halftime. Recently, the mayor of our town issued a proclamation in support of our team.  

I could talk about the Rockin’ Raiders all day. But why do I tell our story? I want to challenge you to make change. The change you discover doesn’t have to be a huge change. Every impact we make can have an even bigger impact on someone else.  

You can change a life with just one act that you commit to and pursue. Maybe you can’t change the whole world - but you can definitely change the world for someone. 

This essay is adapted from an address presented at NFTY Convention, the biennial convention of NFTY – The Reform Jewish Youth Movement. Learn more about the Reform Jewish Movement's disabilities work at rac.org/disabilities.

Sarah Friedman is a high school student in New Jersey and the 2019-2019 president of NFTY-GER, the Garden Empire region of NFTY - The Reform Jewish Youth Movement.is a senior from Hillsborough, New Jersey. She coaches a cheerleading team for students with and without disabilities.

Sarah Friedman
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