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ESPN profiles Maryland high-schooler who doesn’t race on Shabbat

“I wanted to live my values,” said Oliver Ferber, who successfully petitioned the state to move its cross-country championship.

Oliver Ferber running in a seven-minute ESPN feature called “Running on Faith.” Source: Screenshot.
Oliver Ferber running in a seven-minute ESPN feature called “Running on Faith.” Source: Screenshot.

After a Jewish high school athlete petitioned the Maryland cross-country championship director to reschedule the race slated for last Shabbat, April 8, the state moved the competition to Sunday, April 9.

Oliver Ferber, a student at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md., was the subject of an April 7 feature penned by Sam Borden, a senior writer at ESPN.

“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,” Ferber wrote in the letter.

“I felt extraordinarily depressed and anxious. Those days were the most stressful ones I’ve experienced in my life,” he added. “It would mean the world to be able to both race and keep Shabbat.”

Ferber described becoming more religiously observant in 2020 and during the COVID-19 pandemic. That included observing Shabbat more strictly, which he said shocked and angered his teammates. He skipped the 2021 race, which took place on Shabbat.

His letter inspired Greg Dunston, the race director. “It was a matter of looking at it and saying, ‘Well, this boy really wants to run—let me see what I could do,’” he said. “You could tell by his letter that he really wanted to compete and be with his teammates. … And this was going to be the last time he would get to do it.”

Although there has been some division among rabbinic authorities over the centuries about the status of sports on Shabbat and holidays, Ferber sees the exertion involved as outside the spirit of the day. “The joy and pleasure of winning a state championship wouldn’t change the fact that running hard is difficult and painful,” he said.

In 2022, he was able to run on Sunday and helped his school win the state title.

“I’m glad I got to race and have my happy ending,” he said.

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