January 2 , 2006 | Mid-September at the Los Angeles Coliseum. A scorching 85 degrees. Dallas is leading, 14-7, late in the fourth quarter. The Raiders have the ball, fourth and goal from the 3-yard line. The Raiderette cheerleaders prepare to launch into a sideline routine. I pick up my pom-poms and hear the quarterback make the call:

"East, near left, 94 in flair zero on two."

He's going to run it!


The sound of bones cracking, and a scream.

Was that his leg breaking? Uh-oh, the music's starting. Time to dance. Five, six, seven, eight?

I was a cheerleader for the LA Raiders for five years. I danced and moon-walked in high-heel go-go boots for four hours straight in front of 60,000 adoring fans. Everything was great—the attention, the autographs. I cheered for a TV audience of one billion when the Raiders went to the Super Bowl. I was living the All-American girl's dream.

I never planned to be a professional cheerleader. Sure, I cheered in high school and college. But my parents encouraged me to stay more focused on my studies — I majored in Foreign Language at UCLA and performed my final project by playing the castanets while reciting in Spanish.

For cheerleading, I was more than a little overweight. At the time my best friend convinced me to try out for the NFL, I weighed 170 pounds. I didn't make the squad and I didn't understand why. Weren't they looking for good cheerleaders?! I was devastated. Then I looked over at all the finalists, and saw that none of them were heavy. Now I got the concept! So I made a commitment, lost weight, and tried out again. I made it!

For an NFL cheerleader, there is tremendous pressure to be physically beautiful. I was surrounded by 47 gorgeous girls, each one prettier than the next. To survive, I figured out some tricks to the trade. For glamorous eyes, we'd use false eyelashes, although we'd cut them in half to avoid looking too artificial.

For me, the hardest part about being a cheerleader was the world famous Raiderette Calendar. With 12 months in a year, only 12 of the 48 cheerleaders got a full-page photo. The rest got small pictures. I took it personally. To me, a big picture meant "I'm pretty," and a small picture meant, "I'm ugly." In the regular world I was looking good, but in Raiderette land I was failing. I had a small picture every year.

Eventually, I decided to leave the cheerleading squad. What triggered it? Maybe it was the ruthless carnage on the football field that didn't seem right to me. Or the lingering sense that I was somehow contributing to the objectification of women. Or the empty feeling inside as I danced my heart out on the field, but wanting to use my talents for something more fulfilling.

Most likely it was the strong hand of my mother reasserting itself. Growing up, I wasn't allowed to look in the mirror and would get spanked for putting on makeup. I remember my mother's lectures about how looks were superficial, and how important it is to develop one's character. My mother wanted me to be strong on the inside. Her fear was that people would place so much emphasis on my looks, that I'd come to rely on that at the expense of developing myself in other areas.

My mother's message was a good one, even though her Russian style may have seemed too stern growing up.

So I left cheerleading and became a standup comedienne. (I got that talent from my father, who had an act in the Borsht Belt.) I performed on TV, in film, live at The Improv, and overseas for American troops.

But I still felt an emptiness. My struggle with overeating kept coming back to haunt me. (Like in many Jewish families, food represented love.) Externally, my life was great — exciting career, limousines, stylish clothes. But I didn't have any tools to deal with the feelings that food had suppressed all those years. I was overlooking my spiritual side. That's the emptiness I was trying to fill with food. And at some point the food took over.

So I joined a self-help program to help with the weight loss. I learned that it's not what you're eating; it's what's eating you. A byproduct of that effort was that I became more aware of the spiritual spark inside me. I shifted my priorities -- I wanted a home, a soul mate and a stable, secure life.

I found a quiet 9-to-5 job, and began meeting Jewish men. As I dated successful professionals, I came to realize that what I was truly seeking was a spiritual soul mate. So how was I going to meet the right one?

I turned to the one voice I knew I could trust: I prayed to God for direction. The reply I received was: "Why not become the type of person you'd want to marry?" So I asked God to help me be the best woman I could be — spiritually, emotionally and physically — so that my soul mate may recognize me.

I figured if I wanted to marry a Jewish man, I had a lot of work to do. Because my knowledge of Judaism consisted primarily of bagels 'n cream cheese, and Yiddish songs. But no spiritual component. So I started studying Judaism at various locations, and looked for a shul that I felt comfortable in. I fell in love with Aish LA, and increased my commitment to learning.

I started wearing more modest clothing — a long way from go-go boots and pom-poms. Matchmakers would approach me at synagogue and ask tons of questions. "Excuse me, are you single? I think I may have someone for you. May I have your phone number?" People were investing time and effort to try to "match me up" with the right guy. This "blind date" way of meeting men was so different, yet so refreshing.

It was Sunday. I had lunch plans with a girlfriend and she canceled, so I went to a local kosher restaurant and ordered Chicken Caesar Salad, no croutons, with dressing on the side. (Does anyone else besides me remember exactly what they ate?)

A man was eating lunch alone, and he introduced himself. He was very brief and extremely polite. "Excuse me, are you single? May I have your phone number?"

Hmmm... I thought. This sounds familiar.

He called that night and we got married. (Well, not that night, but a few months later.) My husband is a businessman, and also an ordained rabbi — the grandson of a famous rabbi, Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz. He is working to establish another Aish branch in southern California.

During our courtship, my husband and I never touched, not even holding hands until our wedding day. But we did connect on an emotional and spiritual level, which meant the world to me. We spoke about everything from children, money, where to live, and what we expected from each other. It was liberating to know that he was interested in who I am inside, and not for my physical self.

For the dating process, I asked a man in my community to act as my surrogate father, since my father had passed away. He took his role very seriously, even asking questions about my future husband's financial affairs. My husband-to-be lugged two suitcases full of documents to a meeting; my surrogate father wanted to see if he was willing to go to any length to prove he would be a good husband.

I was new to Judaism and the transition was not always easy. I recall going to shul and seeing people standing outside the bathroom near the drinking fountain, moving their lips and saying something in Hebrew. I didn't know they were saying the blessing after using the bathroom; I thought they were all blessing the holy water fountain!

I'm still growing and I still have a lot of questions. My knowledgeable husband is very patient, kind and humble. He answers all my questions about Judaism and tells me he's beginning to wonder if he's on a high enough level to be with me. Imagine that: The rabbi doesn't know if he's spiritual enough for the Raiderette. God does have a sense of humor.

I often think back to my life as a cheerleader. At the time I felt it was such a great career. We would get a lot of fan mail, people would send us bouquets of flowers to our practices, we'd sign autographs at the games. Like the other women on the squad, I was taught that cheerleading is wholesome and All-American -- just like mom, baseball and apple pie. The women I cheered with were sweet, good girls who would volunteer to help the elderly and went to church on Sunday.

But I never thought about what my job really stood for. I actually thought the Raiders had cheerleaders to help the team win! Now I get it what it's all about. I was so naive.

As a NFL cheerleader I was more valued for my external traits, not the person inside. Now I realize how that contributes to low self-esteem. (Wasn't that my mother's message all along?)

I'm still in touch with the cheerleaders and they're thrilled for me. Sometimes they call and ask questions, particularly about the way I dated and my new modest wardrobe. I'm finding that all women are craving modesty. Our society spends billions of dollars pulling the country in the opposite direction. But I think we're seeing a backlash against this and that modesty is the wave of the future. That's why it's so important to have a strong sense of community and religion to show another way.

I'm still on my path to becoming closer to God, which I know will be a lifelong journey. I now serve as a theater director at various religious girls' schools in LA, directing the end-of-year shows. A little Torah, a little Tap —it's perfect! I also had the privilege of teaching a class to Bat Mitzvah girls. (And when they found out I was a former cheerleader, I relented and taught them some cheers in the last five minutes of class, which was fun for me as well.)

My main project now is as a dating coach for marriage-minded women, using my life experiences to help others attain their relationship goals.

Through all this growth and change, it helps to have an extraordinary husband who loves the part of my soul that reaches out for more.

Yes, I used to be a Raiderette, but now it's my husband who cheers me on. I guess everyone needs a cheerleader.

As for me, I still do cheers around the house:

"2,4,6,8 — Shabbos is coming, don't be late!"

Sandy Wolshin Mendlowitz is a dating coach at DatingForMarriage.net, and peforms a one-woman show called TheRabbiAndTheCheerleader.com

This article originally appeared on Aish.com.

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