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April 11, 2023 1:00 pm

ESPN Releases Short Film About Jewish Runner Forced to Decide Between Faith or Team After Race Falls on Shabbat


avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

Oliver Ferber in a clip from ESPN’s SC Featured short film “Running on Faith.” Photo: YouTube screenshot

ESPN released on Sunday as part of its award-winning SC Featured storytelling series a short film about a star cross country  runner and observant Jewish high schooler, and the true story of his difficult decision to sit out his team’s most important race of the season because it was scheduled on Shabbat.

The short feature, called Running on Faith, explains why in November 2021, Oliver Ferber, then a 16-year-old junior at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (JDS) in Rockville, Maryland, decided not to run in the state championship race with the rest of his team despite facing enormous pressure from some of his less-religious family members, teammates, coach and even his Jewish school.

Ferber, who grew up in a moderately observant Jewish household, became more religious during the COVID-19 pandemic and his strict observance of Shabbat conflicted with the Saturday morning competition.

“It was super tough. I cried a few times,” Ferber said. “I was a really big decision [and] I was really stressed out.”

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Ferber’s team ended up winning the state title by three points but he didn’t join in the post-game celebration — again because of Shabbat. He told ESPN, “I had more of a sitting-back happiness, I guess. They all went to someone’s house to celebrate afterwards, and I just walked back to my grandparents’ house. It was Shabbat.”

Shortly after the race, Ferber’s coach suggested that he write a letter to Greg Dunston, the long-time director of the state championship race, asking if he could change the championship date next year, during the athlete’s senior year, from a Saturday to a Sunday. Ferber wrote in the letter that his decision to not participate in the championship left him feeling “extraordinarily depressed and anxious,” and said “those days were the most stressful ones I’ve experienced in my life.”

“This decision was … an incredibly difficult and painful decision to make,” he additionally wrote. “For me, and future runners, it would mean the world to be able to both race and keep Shabbat.”

Dunston was moved by Ferber’s letter and several weeks later it was announced that the 2022 state championship race would be rescheduled for a Sunday. On Nov. 13, 2022, then his senior season, Ferber was finally able to compete in the race and his team again won the state championship.

“I was really proud of him for taking the initiative to write a letter,” Ferber’s father said, “and the fact that it came through just reinforced that idea that you can make positive change and why not go for it if you can.”

After his team’s win in 2022, Ferber reflected on the race that he was forced to sit out and how things were different the following year. He said, “to make my own decisions in life, and to show what I believe and stand firm in, means that I’m independent and that I choose my own path.”

Watch Running on Faith below.

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