ESPN looks at tension between Jewish Day school athletics and religious observance


Photo Courtesy of ESPN.

Jordan Palmer, Chief Digital Content Officer

The motto of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School Boys Cross Country team (JDS) in Rockville, Maryland is “Nothing great comes easy,” and that motto speaks volumes. You see the students at JDS are practicing Jews who must observe the Sabbath from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown.

This has created a dilemma for several student-athletes because the Maryland State Championships compete on Saturdays, and therefore some runners could not participate. The ethical and religious issues facing these athletes caught the attention of ESPN who produced a short video feature that will debut this weekend.

“Running on Faith” will air on demand on ESPN +.

Sunday’s “SC Featured” segment tells the story of cross-country runners at JSD and the tensions between their competing schedules and religious observance. The video centers on one of the school’s star runners, Oliver Ferber, who chose not to compete in the 2021 state championship because it fell on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.

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ESPN producer Harry Hawkings weaves together Ferber’s story along with those of his teammates and their parents, who decided to run on Saturdays – in secret from the school, and in direct violation of their faith – in pursuit of a state championship.

“What stood out in this story to me was how strong Oliver’s convictions were,” said Hawkings via an email interview. “I don’t think I would have been able to withstand that pressure, so I deeply admired how he held firm in his beliefs and would not compromise. We do a lot of stories about athletes who only have one focus – their sport – and learning about a different perspective and struggle was refreshing.”

Oliver Ferber
Oliver Ferber

Many members of the team found innovative ways to balance these conflicting priorities. For example, to get to a Saturday race without driving some students would travel on Friday and spend the night within walking or biking distance from the race venue.

“I hope people will watch because, to me, the story represents what is best about sports. The best sports stories are not just stories about competition but stories about heart. In the end, because he followed his heart, Oliver was able to get the happy ending he wanted and stayed true to himself,” said Hawkings.

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