Torah | Different customs do not break the Jewish chain


Reform: Shmini 1, Leviticus 11:1-23

Pesach VIII: Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17


Reform: II Samuel 6:1-23

Pesach VIII: Isaiah 10:32-12:6

My first Shabbat as an undergraduate at Brandeis University, I was caught off guard. I went to the campus Reform service, which was warm, comfortable, and reminded me of home. Then I went to Shabbat dinner sponsored by Hillel. Hundreds of Jewish students from all of the different denominations across campus gathered for the meal. All of a sudden, I realized that not every Jew does Shabbat the way I’d always known. I was unfamiliar with many of the customs that my more traditionally observant classmates understood — like hand-washing rituals and saying a full Birkat HaMazon (blessing after the meal). It was the first time I felt out of place in a Jewish setting, and it was quite a while before I felt comfortable going back.

As the years went by, I learned the rhythm of these dinners and was no longer surprised or embarrassed when my practice was different from that of my neighbors. Now, many years later when I talk to my 11th- and 12th-grade students about Jewish life on a college campus, I try to help them prepare for these new experiences — including the knowledge that when they mark their calendars, sometimes it will look different from that of their Conservative or Orthodox counterparts.

For Reform Jews, Passover ends after seven days, following the custom in Israel. Most Conservative and Orthodox Jews will follow the tradition of the diaspora, observing an eighth day on Saturday, April 11. That means that on Shabbat morning, Reform Jews will be reading a different Torah portion this year than the rest of the diaspora Jewish community.

Ordinarily on Shabbat each Jewish community is linked together by the words of Torah that we share. But on this Shabbat, our communities will be temporarily out of sync. (For a comprehensive explanation of why Reform Jews observe seven days of Passover instead of eight, I recommend Ben Dreyfus’ short article “Is Passover 7 or 8 Days?” at

It could be a challenge for the Jewish community that one synagogue’s end-of-Passover pizza party comes on the seventh night instead of the eighth. So often in our pursuit of pluralism and community, we strive for unity, seeking ways to highlight our similarities instead of our differences. This is affirming. But it is also important to know how and why we are different. There is more than one way to be a Jew, and this adds to the beauty and vibrancy of the Jewish community.

When I was in rabbinical school, years after those Shabbat dinners at Hillel, I traveled to Ghana with American Jewish World Service and a group of other rabbinical students from seminaries across the country. We had to figure out how to work together, eat together, study together and keep Shabbat together, all without the comfort of our own like-minded communities. This required communication. Lots of communication. Literally, hours spent sitting in a circle and talking about how we each observe Shabbat.

We talked about where we can bend, and those places where we can’t, and eventually, when Shabbat came we all found a way to rest. Even though I felt terrible when I accidentally switched off a light, and a new friend might have preferred it if no one had picked up a guitar, we all learned something. Each one of us approaches Jewish tradition with our own experiences and leanings. We all access spiritual connection differently. It is a blessing that the Jewish community is big enough and diverse enough to offer many inroads.

As Jews come to the end of a book of Torah, the congregation rises and says together: chazak chazak v’nitchazek. The first words, chazak chazak, are written in the singular: be strong. The last word is written in the plural: v’nitchazek, and we will be strengthened. When we are proud of our own individual Jewish identities, we will all be strengthened as one community filled with different kinds of Jews.

May we all enjoy our pizza or pasta on the seventh or eighth night. And as you take that first bite, do so proudly in celebration of differences and plurality within our Jewish community.

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is an associate rabbi and educator at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. She can be reached at [email protected]

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is an associate rabbi and educator at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. She can be reached at [email protected].