A state championship or his faith? The agonizing choice of a young Jewish runner

SC Featured: 'Running on Faith' (6:49)

Forced to choose between his team and his faith, cross country runner Oliver Ferber took a stand … and then pushed for a change. (6:49)

Oliver Ferber stood still. In front of him, everyone was moving: His classmates, his running partners, his teammates -- they were all striding and sprinting and pushing themselves through the biggest race of the year on this Saturday morning in November 2021. On any other day, Oliver thought, I'd be among them -- maybe even in front of them. On this day, though, he only watched.

Oliver wasn't injured. He had chosen to stand on the sidelines of Maryland's cross country state championship meet. He had chosen to be wearing khakis and a green sweater instead of the track singlet. He had chosen to be on the outside peering in, staring as his team raced down the final stretch toward the finish line because it was, in his heart, what he thought he had to do.

He still felt the ache of being alone.

It wasn't about the running, really. It wasn't about sports at all. It was about faith and conviction and belief. It was about the weight that comes with confronting one of the hardest questions a person can face: What do you do when everyone you trust is telling you to do one thing, but you're pretty sure you're supposed to do the exact opposite?

ABOUT TWO MONTHS earlier, Oliver, then 16 and a junior, went on a training run with a few of his teammates from the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland. As they eased into their pace, Oliver told the others they might have to run the state championship race without him. When they asked why, he was clear: "Shabbat," he said.

Shabbat is the Hebrew word for the Sabbath, the holiest day of the week for Jews. It lasts from sundown Friday to nightfall on Saturday, and it is supposed to be a day of sanctity and simplicity and rest.

What that actually looks like in practice differs broadly depending on the person. Some students at Oliver's school might celebrate Shabbat with little more than a family dinner on Friday evening, while others might choose to disconnect from their lives completely, avoiding driving or using any electronic devices, say, and spending time only with relatives or at synagogue until Shabbat ends.

Oliver was raised in a family whose religious observance was more cultural than ritualized. They often lit Shabbat candles on Friday night, but "Saturday morning was sports, whatever they wanted to do and they were always busy," said Oliver's mother, Karyn. Oliver's dad, Scott, said, "Shabbat was not anything different than the other days."

That changed for Oliver in 2020. During the early days of the pandemic, Oliver found himself gravitating more and more toward his Judaism. He began praying more. He began connecting with other Jews who were more observant through youth groups. He began taking a stricter approach to the holiness of Shabbat.

"None of it felt especially hard to me," he said. "It's what I believed in, and I felt like the other things I was doing was hypocrisy. To some extent, I felt I was maybe living a lie."

Oliver had shown interest in being more observant than the rest of the family over the years, his parents said. On the day Oliver's sister became a Bat Mitzvah, Scott recalled, Oliver insisted he wanted to walk to synagogue -- 3.5 miles away -- instead of riding in the car.

"He always dabbled in it," Karyn said. "So we thought it was a phase." She laughed. "You know, there's worse things that kids get into."

Oliver acknowledged that his new commitment to Jewish ritual might have felt sudden, but he likened it to running: "I started off sprinting and then I just didn't stop."

While Oliver's loved ones might have been a little confused by his change in religious rigor, they largely accommodated him: 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.

Once, Oliver and his dad were at the airport on a Friday waiting for a flight to Providence, Rhode Island, so Oliver could visit Brown University. The flight was supposed to land a little after 4 p.m., in plenty of time for the Ferbers to take a taxi to their hotel before sunset at 6 p.m., when Shabbat would begin.

But the flight was delayed. Estimated arrival went to 4:45 p.m. Then 5:10 p.m. Then 5:30 p.m. Scott looked at Oliver and knew. They picked up their suitcases and went home.

"I think he wasn't probably as aware of his individual choice and its implications on others around him," Scott said. "And I think the experience with cross country was actually what educated him to the fact that, 'My individual decisions sometimes have consequences beyond myself.'"

By the time the 2021 season approached, Oliver couldn't stop thinking about the state championship race -- which had always been held on a Saturday morning -- as an issue of morality.

When Oliver told his teammates on that training run what he was thinking about doing, he saw shock and hurt in their faces. He saw anger.

"It wasn't like I was saying, 'Oh, I'm not going to be at practice tomorrow,'" he said. "It was like, 'I'm not going to be at the race of the season.' ... And obviously they didn't want that to happen."

TO BE CLEAR: Nowhere in the five books and nearly 6,000 verses of the Torah does it say, "Thou shalt not try to win a high school state championship on the Sabbath." Jewish law, or halakha, is rarely that simple.

Oliver's situation, as is often the case when applying an ancient text to modern life, centered on interpretation. And Oliver's interpretation that running a grueling distance race could violate the idea that Jews are supposed to focus only on experiencing the most basic pleasures on Shabbat was hardly without precedent. In the 1600s, the great Polish thinker, Rabbi David Halevi Segal, wrote that while "it is certainly possible to derive pleasure as a result of exercise ... it is forbidden because while running, [one] does not enjoy the experience, and it is not permitted on the basis of the pleasure [one] experiences afterwards."

In other words, as Oliver put it, "The joy and pleasure of winning a state championship wouldn't change the fact that running hard is difficult and painful."

But many other scholars and institutions (including the Jewish Day School itself) saw participating in sports as acceptable. Jason Belinkie, who has been the cross country coach at JDS for 15 years, had helped other runners navigate Shabbat-related logistical issues in the past, but he had never encountered a student who had an issue with racing itself.

"I did not understand where Oliver was coming from," Belinkie said. "It was difficult because I didn't want to offend him. But I was also honest with him that he's a critical part of our team. And that we weren't sure how we were going to do it if he was not part of our team at the state championship."

Belinkie wasn't the only one confused by Oliver's choice. David Fritz, Oliver's cousin and teammate, was aware of Oliver's religious progression; he even recalled a day when the two attended a Washington Nationals game and were considering moving down to better seats in the later innings. "Oliver, you want to seat jump?" David asked, and Oliver replied, "Well, I need to think about the halachic arguments for if this is an ethical thing to do."

But David never considered the possibility that Oliver wouldn't race. The JDS team was strong in 2021, a group with a real chance to win a title. "You're about to throw this all away for all of us?" David remembered thinking. "I felt so hurt that he was going to sit this out," he said.

The pressure Oliver felt came from all sides. His teammates formed a new group chat without him -- for the "state racers" -- and when Oliver suggested he'd still come to the race support the others, one of his friends told him, perhaps only half-jokingly, "If you're not going to race, don't show up. No one wants to see your face."

Belinkie, who talked about the issue countless times with Oliver, wanted to be clear just how much Oliver meant to the team's success. So, in one meeting, Belinkie compared all the JDS runners' times to those of their biggest rival, demonstrating -- with raw numbers -- how Oliver's absence would almost certainly ruin the team's chance to win.

Afterward, Oliver said, he went to his car but found he couldn't make himself put the engine into gear. "I just put the windows down -- I like it when the windows are down," he said. "I just sat there." Then he burst into tears.

At home, it was difficult, too. Oliver's mother told him he owed it to his teammates to run; that her family who lived in Israel said it was OK for him to run; that the officials at JDS were good with him running.

"I cared because he was letting the team down, the school down, my family down," Karyn said. "It's a Jewish school that can win a state championship -- I'm like, 'Do it for the Jewish people. You need to run.'"

Oliver soaked up all of it, internalized all of it, agonized over all of it. "There was a lot of yelling and getting mad at each other," he said. "My teammates, my coach, the school, my mom ..." He trailed off. "Everyone was telling me to race. It put a lot of pressure on me."

Oliver cried, more than once. He changed his mind, more than once. According to Belinkie, even the rabbi Oliver was consulting with indicated at one point that running could potentially be a defensible choice. "He had the whole world against him in that situation," the coach said.

It didn't matter. Oliver couldn't shake the feeling that he knew what was right.

"You're not allowed to do really intense exercise you don't really enjoy," he said matter-of-factly. "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."

He shrugged. "I wanted to live my values," he said.

ON THE DAY of the race, Oliver walked to the course from his grandparents' house, where he'd stayed the night before because it was close. It was cold, so he wore a Baltimore Orioles winter cap along with his Shabbat clothes.

Oliver had never watched a cross country race before. The act of running, he said, is such an individual pursuit -- the focus is always inward -- that he wasn't sure what it would be like to stand up high on the hill and look down as all the runners below him made their way over the course.

"It almost felt godly, in some way, because I'm watching the whole thing," Oliver said.

He added, "I was praying while it was happening."

From his elevated spot, Oliver watched his teammates break from the start. He watched them slog through the center of the course. He watched them run, together, the race of their lives as they surged toward the finish.

When Oliver heard the final results, and it was official that JDS had pulled the upset and won a state title by three points, he clapped and smiled as his teammates jumped together in a mosh pit, hugging and shrieking with joy and glee.

He didn't leap in with them, didn't throw his arms around everyone's shoulders. He couldn't. They won, he thought. I didn't.

He stood to the side, alone.

"I had more of a sitting-back happiness, I guess," Oliver said. "They all went to someone's house to celebrate afterwards, and I just walked back to my grandparents' house. It was Shabbat."

IN THE DAYS and weeks after the race, Oliver thought occasionally about the next year -- his senior season -- but assumed nothing would be different. He figured he'd compete but the state championship race wasn't an option. It had always been on a Saturday.

Oliver's coach, though, was thinking differently. Belinkie had tried over the years to get the race moved off Shabbat but had never gained any traction. Now, he thought, Oliver's experience might make state federation officials look at the situation from a new perspective.

So Belinkie asked Oliver if he would write a letter to Greg Dunston, the longtime meet director of the state championship race. And Oliver did.

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.


Oliver Ferber

Oliver sent the note with little expectation. The tumult of last season had been his drama, JDS's drama, his mother's drama. He didn't think it would mean anything to anyone else.

Only it did. Dunston, the race director, read the letter and it moved him. He had heard Belinkie asking before about a change but was always able to find a reason to keep the meet on Saturdays -- other activities at the host school, maybe, or weekday traffic. It was easy to slough off a coach. But this was a kid.

"It made me push a little harder," Dunston said. "When he wrote me that letter, it was a matter of looking at it and saying, 'Well, this boy really wants to run -- let me see what I could do.'

"You could tell by his letter that he really wanted to compete and be with his teammates," Dunston continued. "And this was going to be the last time he would get to do it."

In mid-June, Oliver and his teammates got word: That fall, the state championship race would be on a Sunday.

ON THE MORNING of Nov. 13, 2022, Oliver tightened his shoelaces. He adjusted his shirt. He stepped into the middle of his teammates' circle and led the, "What time is it? RACE TIME" call-and-response. He adjusted his yarmulke and walked to the start line.

Everyone tensed up. The gun went off. The runners lurched forward and Oliver kept a steady pace early on, toward the middle of the pack.

As he approached the finish line in the final race of his career. Belinkie shouted out, "It's the last straightaway of your career, Oliver -- what are you going to do?" and Oliver straightened his shoulders as his legs thrummed. Off to the side, Karyn and Scott screamed and shouted. When he crossed the finish line, he put his head on Karyn's shoulder and she wrapped her arms around his neck.

Oliver and JDS won their state title. The scene from a year earlier played out again -- the jumping together, the whooping, the mosh pit. Except this time Oliver was at the heart of it. He laughed as he and his friends cradled the trophy.

"I'm glad I got to race and have my happy ending," Oliver said.

For centuries, Jewish sages and scholars have discussed a phrase from very early in the book of Genesis: Lech lecha, the Torah says, meaning, "Go forth." One interpretation is that it is a beseeching, a commanding, for each of us to go forward in search of ourselves. To go on an internal journey. To be sure, more than anything, that we have found our own truth -- however hard that might be -- before we go looking for anyone else's.

Oliver found his truth. Amid the chaos of that afternoon, he hugged his mother and his father. He hugged his coach. He hugged his teammates, pulling them close for a picture, the state championship banner draped across their bodies. At one point, Oliver was asked what this day meant for him, and, suddenly, he stopped. He took a deep breath. He went silent for five, 10, 15 seconds, his eyes flitting over all that was going on around him.

Then he smiled.

"It means I'm independent," he said. "And I choose my own path."