ESPN documentary features star high school cross country athlete Oliver Ferber, who sat out the state championship rather than violate Shabbat.
By Ben Rappaport, United with Israel
Star cross country runner Oliver Ferber recently made national headlines for prioritizing his Jewish values above his running career.
Ferber, a student at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (JDS) in Rockville Maryland, had made the decision to sit out the state championship run during his junior year in November 2021 – because the run fell on Shabbat.
Now he is featured in an ESPN documentary called “Running on Faith” which tells the story of how he stuck to his principles – and still managed to participate in and win a state championship title.
According to ESPN, Oliver grew up in a traditional Jewish household, but in 2020 decided to become more observant of halakha – Jewish law. Among other things, this meant refraining from activities on Shabbat (Friday at sundown until Saturday at nightfall) which infringe on feeling the day’s special sanctity.
ESPN noted that Oliver’s decision to become more observant ultimately influenced his friends and family to become more observant, as well.
“His mother prepared Friday meals ahead of time, then used special warmers to heat the food because cooking is prohibited on the Sabbath. His friends made weekend plans with him before sundown because he would turn off his phone once Shabbat began. When the family wanted to go to the beach for the weekend in the summer, they had to leave early on Friday afternoons instead of later in the evening, after gridlock subsided, like they always used to do.”
Still, ahead of the state championship, which had always taken place on Shabbat, there was a lot of pressure on Oliver to participate. After much agonizing, Oliver, who was considered an integral part of the team, decided he could not abandon his principles.
“You’re not allowed to do really intense exercise you don’t really enjoy,” Oliver explained of his decision not to compete on Shabbat.
“And when you’re running up the hill, every step requires effort. And it’s hard and it hurts. And if you’re doing that and like, ‘Oh, this is fun,’ then you’re not racing the right way.”
“I wanted to live my values,” Oliver concluded.
The following year, his senior year, Oliver assumed he would again not be able to participate in the state championship. However, this time, his coach asked him to write a letter to the director of the state championship race, to see if the director would consider scheduling the race for a day other than Shabbat.
Oliver wrote the following letter:
Dear Mr. Dunston …
I’d like to tell you about my experience and my team’s experience with states during the 2021 cross country season. …
I could either race at states, which would fall during Shabbat, and violate all of my religious beliefs, or I could observe Shabbat, but potentially deny the opportunity to myself and my teammates of winning a state championship. …
I felt extraordinarily depressed and anxious. Those days were the most stressful ones I’ve experienced in my life. …
This decision was … an incredibly difficult and painful decision to make. …
[For] me, and future runners, it would mean the world to be able to both race and keep Shabbat.
Thank you very much for your time you’ve put into this decision.
Though not expecting anything to change, Oliver’s letter ended up moving the race director, who subsequently decided to schedule the upcoming state championship for Sunday, rather than Saturday.
This time, Oliver participated in the race – and his school won the state title.
“I’m glad I got to race and have my happy ending,” Oliver said.
Following the race, Oliver was asked what the day meant for him.
“It means I’m independent,” he responded. “And I choose my own path.”
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