First Asian-American rabbi vies for role at New York's Central Synagogue
Cantor Angela Buchdahl reflects growing diversity of American Jewry and symbolizes the rapidly changing face of 21st-century rabbinate.
When Cantor Angela Buchdahl walks among the pews, greeting congregants before Friday night services at Manhattan’s venerable Central Synagogue, she encounters a mélange of Jewish faces, including blacks, Asians and Hispanics.
It’s a diversity that reflects the emergence of an American Jewry of unprecedented ethnic breadth, and a diversity that Buchdahl - born to an Ashkenazi, Reform Jewish father and a Korean Buddhist mother - embodies.
In many ways, Buchdahl symbolizes the rapidly changing face of the 21st-century rabbinate. And with the announced retirement of Rabbi Peter Rubinstein as Central’s spiritual leader, she is now a leading candidate to assume the post of senior rabbi of the oldest continually in use synagogue in New York.
But Buchdahl’s ascension to the role she now plays did not come without personal doubt as to what it means to be “Jewish.”
As she told Hadassah Magazine earlier this year, growing up, her “greatest fear was that I was a fraud, that I wore the cloak of a Jew but somehow deep down inside I wasn’t authentic.”
Today, Buchdahl, who was born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1972, is unquestionably a pioneer in the world of Reform Judaism. She was the first woman to be ordained as both a cantor and a rabbi, and the first Asian American to obtain either post.
But she also engaged Judaism at a time when the Reform movement itself was undergoing dramatic change. Eleven years after Buchdahl’s birth, in a move still hotly debated in all streams of Judaism, including within Reform Judaism itself, the Reform movement overturned more than 2,000 years of tradition that recognized only those whose mother was Jewish as Jews from birth. Others, including those with just a Jewish father, were required to undergo a process of conversion, though this process varied among Judaism’s different streams.
Starting in 1983, as intermarriage advanced steadily among its members, Reform Judaism conferred a “presumption of Jewish descent” on those with one Jewish parent, whether it was a father or a mother. The one condition to this recognition was that it be established “through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith,” according to the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
In many ways, Buchdahl represents the flowering of this revolution in Judaism, and symbolizes a kind of coming of age of its children.
Tacoma, Wash., the hometown of the family of Buchdahl’s father going back three generations, was the city Buchdahl ended up growing up in when her father returned to the United States from South Korea with his new family in tow. It was 1976, and Buchdahl was aged four.
At Temple Beth El, the town’s Reform synagogue, which the young family soon joined, “nobody asked who was Jewish and who wasn’t,” recalled Beth Garden, a song leader at the congregation during Buchdahl’s time there.
“I knew people who had converted and those who hadn’t, and they were welcomed no matter what,” said Garden, who also gave Buchdahl flute lessons. “If they showed up, that was the most important thing.”
Buchdahl’s father, Fred Warnick, said he was originally sent to South Korea to fulfill a ROTC commitment and was working as a civil engineer there when he met his future wife. On his return to Tacoma, Warnick served on the synagogue’s buildings and grounds committee, according to Garden’s mother, Joan Garden, the synagogue’s education director at the time.
Joan Garden added that she remembered seeing Buchdahl’s mother around the Tacoma synagogue with her family just as often.
“Her mother allowed her and her sister to do all the Jewish things. [Angela] was always a leader of her group.”
That acceptance allowed Buchdahl to thrive in Tacoma, where she became a leader in school and within the synagogue’s youth programs.
In an email to the Forward, Warnick recalled that his daughter taught elementary school students Jewish songs and music throughout her high school years. Eventually, during her summers off from Yale University, Buchdahl became the head song leader at Camp Swig, a Reform camp in Saratoga, Calif.
In his email, Warnick stressed the many similarities he found between the culture he encountered in Korea and the hometown and Jewish community to which he returned. In both, he wrote, “I saw a similar strength, belief and hope, coupled with a deep appreciation for tradition.” In Asia, he added, “I married a Korean woman, who shared in these strengths.”
Seen from a wide-angle view today, it appears that Buchdahl’s parents were far from atypical. A recent two-year study by sociologists Noah Leavitt and Helen Kim suggests that, overwhelmingly, Asian-Jewish couples today are raising their children as Jews. That compares with the finding of the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey that about “one-third of the children in households where only one of the two spouses is Jewish are being raised Jewish and/or with a Jewish identity.”
Still, Buchdahl has written movingly of her struggle with her identity during her youth notwithstanding the support she received in Tacoma.
“Internal questions of authenticity loomed over my Jewish identity throughout my adolescence into early adulthood, as I sought to integrate my Jewish, Korean, and secular American identities,” Buchdahl wrote in the publication Sh’ma Journal in 2003. Buchdahl said there were times she believed she could never be “fully Jewish.”
She told the Seattle Jewish Transcript that her first transformative Jewish experience came during a Bronfman Youth Fellowship trip to Israel in 1989.
On her trip, she encountered “Jews who didn’t think I was a Jew.” On the streets of Israel, children would yell at her or question her about the meaning of the Star of David necklace she wore.
During that summer visit, Buchdahl had an Orthodox Jewish roommate, of whom she became envious. “Her Jewishness came seeping out of every pore. It made me feel like maybe I wasn’t authentic enough,” Buchdahl wrote.
In the Sh’ma article, Buchdahl reflected on her first trip to Israel and said: “After a painful summer of feeling marginalized and invisible in Israel, I called my mother to declare that I no longer wanted to be a Jew. I did not look Jewish, I did not carry a Jewish name, and I no longer wanted the heavy burden of having to explain and prove myself every time I entered a new Jewish community.”
The response from Buchdahl’s mother was direct and simple: ”Is that possible?”
Buchdahl wrote that the conversation with her mother made her realize that she could not stop being a Jew, just as she couldn’t stop being a woman or Korean.
Shortly after, Buchdahl chose to study religion at Yale, where she was a member of Hillel and met Jacob Buchdahl, whom she later married. She also became one of the first female members of the secret society Skull and Bones, an elite group whose members bond for life. Its ranks include former president George W. Bush, and John Kerry, the current secretary of state.
At Yale, Buchdahl not only studied Judaism, but also examined her mother’s connection to Buddhism. Her conclusion, she told the Transcript, was that even though her mother did not preach or practice Buddhism, she “was Buddhist in the ways she thought and acted.”
In 2012, Buchdahl appeared on the Public Broadcasting Service’s program “Finding Your Roots,” where guests trace their ancestry. She confessed to her mother that she thought legacies of her Korean heritage were slipping from her three children, including from Buchdahl herself. Her mother’s response was that the values of respect and striving for goals that Buchdahl displays were essential Korean values.
Despite the non-Jewish background of Buchdahl’s mother, her influence has guided Buchdahl’s Judaic journey. Buchdah’s mother once even recommended to her rabbi daughter to add kimchi, spicy pickled cabbage — a Korean cuisine mainstay — to the Seder plate, and influenced her to draw from all lineages of her life in her career.
Buchdahl declined interview requests from the Forward for this profile, saying she did not want media exposure at this time, perhaps in part due to her current candidacy to become the congregation’s senior rabbi. Several other clergy leaders and members did not respond to requests for interviews.
But some of her congregants at Central were not shy in explaining how Buchdahl’s incorporation of Jewish, Buddhist, American and Korean traditions has endeared her to them.
Howard Sharfstein, the synagogue’s honorary president, helped hire Buchdahl as cantor and said she has been crucial, along with other clergy, in helping increase membership — the congregation now has a two- to three-year waiting list, as it caps membership at 2,000 — and expanding the range of programs at the synagogue.
Sharfstein also praised Buchdahl’s musical abilities, including her melodic voice and her guitar playing, both of which fill the far rafters of the cavernous Moorish-revival designed synagogue. Sharfstein said he remembered that when he reviewed CDs submitted by cantor candidates he was struck by how Buchdahl’s voice stood out.
“I grew up in what I would call a classical Reform congregation,” said Sharfstein. “The cantor stood up, sang, the congregation sat and listened, and occasionally sang along.”
Sharfstein said Buchdahl’s services are the complete opposite of this. “It is so different than what I was brought up to know, and it’s much more personal and so much more meaningful,” he said. “It does exactly what Shabbat is intended to do. It makes you stop, it makes you think.
“When Angela sings ‘Hashkiveinu,’ I’m in another place and I’m at peace.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Buchdahl’s mentor at Westchester Reform Temple, where she worked prior to Central, said Buchdahl could always be counted on to fill in for senior programs, funerals, baby namings or other events.
“When she left, our community was devastated, because she was beloved,” said Jacobs, who is now president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Reform movement’s national umbrella group. “She served as a rabbinic intern, a cantor intern, cantor — she did everything and anything we needed. She’s a once in a generation leader.”
As a clergy leader at Central, Buchdahl has not shied away from publicly voicing her opinions on issues beyond her congregation’s walls. Recently, on her public Facebook page, she was critical of Congress’s failures to pass gun control legislation, and praised the Boy Scouts when they lifted the ban on gay scouts.
“She utilizes both sides of the brain,” said Lawrence Hoffman, her thesis adviser at New York’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where she was ordained. “As a cantor she appreciates the art and aesthetics, but as a rabbi she appreciates academics. She’s a remarkably holistic person.”
Hoffman said he could tell early on that Buchdahl would be a transformative force on the pulpit, by the way she listened to congregants. “We’ve been working the last 20 or 30 years to change the model of pulpit presence, and she epitomizes it,” he said.
For Buchdahl’s family, the lessons she teaches inside the synagogue and at home are rooted in her lifelong journey through Korean, American, Buddhist and Jewish experiences.
“My wife and I have seen it as a melding of two very similar cultures — in terms of hope and appreciation for our respective forebears and cultures — although the spoken/written language, foods, clothes, arts and holidays are not necessarily similar,” Warnick wrote in his email.
In years to come, Buchdahl’s path may not be such an anomaly. A recent study by UJA-Federation of New York reported that 87,000, or 12%, of Jewish households in the area are “multiracial or nonwhite.” Sharfstein is hopeful that future reform clergy leaders will continue to change how people perceive Judaism.
“I can’t imagine us being where we are now without Angela,” he said. “I’ve traveled to Israel with Angela. Standing, overlooking Jerusalem, she starts to sing ‘Havdalah,’ looking over the Old City. I simply will never forget it. When they close the box on me at the end, it’s one of the things I hope to remember.”