Update: This article was updated 12:45 p.m. to correct the spelling of Laura Blumenfeld’s last name.
Rockville’s Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School’s cross-country team is one of Maryland’s best — and now they’ve caught the attention of ESPN.
The sports network is currently producing a short video feature to be aired before millions of viewers around Passover in April 2023. The feature will center on one of JDS’s star runners, Oliver Ferber, who chose not to compete in the 2021 state championship because it fell on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.
Harry Hawkings, ESPN producer in charge of the feature, said he hopes viewers come away with a deeper appreciation for “the lengths people will go to be true to what they believe.”
“It’s not just adults who have to make difficult decisions,” he said.
Jason Belinkie has been coaching JDS cross country for 15 years. Running may look like an individual sport, he said, but cross country is a team effort. Out of a team of seven competitors, the scores of the top five runners are added up to determine the team’s final placement.
Belinkie has structured JDS’s team in a unique way, with both middle and high school runners practicing alongside each other in a co-ed environment. “Why confine them to age and gender when it should be defined by who’s running what paces?” he said.
Nathan Szubin, currently one of JDS’s top runners, said Belinkie’s approach fosters a close-knit sense of community and mentorship among students who otherwise wouldn’t mingle. During long hours on the trail, schoolmates chat about everything and anything.
“I look forward to meets partly because I get to run, but partly just because I get to be with the team,” Szubin said.
Cross country hinges on tracking time, down to the second. But the Jewish Sabbath requires suspending time in deference to spiritual reflection. From sunset to sundown, exertion is prohibited — including the use of cars, electricity and money.
JDS’s team has found innovative ways to balance these conflicting priorities. They coordinate meals, prayers and synagogue services around Saturday races, and refrain from using phones or electricity.
Transportation is a particularly steep hurdle. Daniel Weiss, a former JDS runner, said the team resorts to “drastic measures” to get to Saturday races without driving. Students travel on Fridays and spend the night within biking or walking distance of the race venue.
Over the years they’ve slept in hotels and basements, couches and even in tents. Weiss said one time he recalls biking 12 miles into Washington, D.C. for a competition. Another time, the team stayed in log cabins and hiked two miles to get to the venue the next morning.
Multiple JDS students said running with Belinkie’s team has been the highlight of their school experience.
Weiss’ last race with JDS was the 2017 state championship, which took place on an early November morning at Georgetown Preparatory School. The 25-degree chill froze the ground solid. As the runners peeled off, Weiss felt his shoe leave his foot. He plowed forward and ran all 3.1 miles on one shoe across the frostbitten field. He placed second, and the team won the championship.
Weiss went on to join Cornell University’s cross-country team, but during his junior year his career was halted abruptly when his lung collapsed due to COVID-19. The injury required a highly invasive surgery. As Weiss remembers, “The last person I talked to before going under the knife wasn’t my mom or my dad — it was Coach Belinkie.”
Belinkie has been advocating for the state championship races to be moved to Sunday for years because of the unique conflict it creates for his team. Even so, he said it’s unusual for even the most observant JDS runner to choose not to compete.
Oliver Ferber’s decision not to run in the 2021 championship came as a shock. As one of JDS’s top five runners, he knew how negatively his loss would impact the team. “I felt like I was tearing them apart,” he said. Two days before the race, his teammates were still pleading with him to run. Ferber wouldn’t budge.
“To me, that’s a remarkable testament of self-will that I don’t think I would have had when I was 17 years old,” Hawkings said.
JDS ended up winning the championship, with Ferber cheering from the sidelines. The fact that he showed up to encourage his team “speaks a lot to his character,” Belinkie said. “It was probably one of the most difficult days of his life.”
As a senior, Ferber knew 2022 would be his last season. With the state championship approaching, he wrote a candid letter to the state committee describing his traumatic 2021 experience and urging the committee to move this year’s races to Sunday.
The committee listened. On Sunday, Nov. 13, for the first time in JDS history, both the high school boys’ and girls’ teams won the state championship.
“A lot of times people will tell you what to be, that you have to act a certain way,” Ferber said. “It’s okay to stand true to your values and be persistent in what you believe.”
Laura Blumenfeld, Daniel Weiss’s mother, described the rush of admiration she felt seeing eighth-grade Mali Osofsky cross the finish line in her long skirt, ahead of the entire division. “Talk about dancing in heels backward,” Blumenfeld said. Osofsky led the JDS high school girls’ team to their first state championship in the school’s 57-year history.
The impact of Belinkie and Ferber’s advocacy extended beyond JDS. Another Jewish team, Berman Hebrew Academy, also competed in the Sunday championships.
Karyn Ferber said a young girl from the BHA team approached her and asked, “Are you Oliver’s mom?” The girl said, “Thank you. I never got to compete in the championship before today.”
Both Belinkie and Ferber are hopeful the championships will continue to be hosted on Sundays. On top of the upcoming ESPN feature, Belinkie said he’s currently in talks with the Kennedy Marshall Production company about making a feature film on the JDS team.
“My goal is to broaden people’s perspectives,” Belinkie said. “Even despite our differences and all the things we have to go through, we’re still going after the same goals.”