NEW YORK – What has made some people nervous about Angela Buchdahl becoming the senior rabbi at Central Synagogue – one of the two largest Reform synagogues in New York and one of the biggest in the United States – is not that she’s the first Asian-American rabbi. It’s not that she’s a woman or, at 41, so young to lead a congregation whose membership will soon number 2,400 families. It’s not that she’s been working primarily as a cantor for most of her career. It’s not even that she’s the mother of three young children, though that has given some in her congregation pause, Buchdahl said. No, it’s because she talks about God.
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“We become very nervous talking about God in the Jewish community,” Buchdahl tells Haaretz. “I made people on the search committee a little nervous about it.”
God is at the center of Buchdahl’s life. Born in South Korea and descended from a Korean king, she has prayed every night since she was a young girl in Tacoma, Washington, with a Korean-Buddhist mother and American-Jewish father. And in her new role at Central Synagogue, she is trying to put God at the center as well.
“She has given a lot of thought as to where God fits into the Jewish vocabulary and how tricky that is for many of us,” says Abigail Pogrebin, a writer and vice president at Central Synagogue, and member of the rabbinic search committee. In her interview with the committee, “she went there in a way that I often find leaders don’t,” adds Pogrebin.
Buchdahl was nominated by the synagogue’s board in December and approved unanimously by the congregants on January 7. At the synagogue where she has worked as senior cantor since 2006, Buchdahl will take over as senior rabbi on July 1, following the retirement of Rabbi Peter Rubinstein.
While Buchdahl first enrolled in the Reform movement’s rabbinical school, stopped in order to become a cantor and then reenrolled in rabbinical school, she has an unusually ecumenical background. She took classes at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, studied at the Orthodox Drisha Institute and the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. “I have had a lot of pluralistic learning experiences,” she says. “I don’t see the traditional boundaries.”
Synagogue walls are one of them. The Shabbat and holiday services that Central Synagogue live-streams are viewed by hundreds each Friday night and at least 25,000 people in 49 different countries on the most recent High Holy Days.
“You always worry that people aren’t attending their local synagogues” if they’re live streaming, Buchdahl says. “But in most cases, it’s a choice between watching us or doing nothing.” Other Jewish communities are not reaching them. “I have a friend in Laramie, Wyoming, who watches us and said, ‘You are our Jewish life,’” Buchdahl reveals. Even where brick-and-mortar congregations exist, “unfortunately, synagogues are not supporting people’s needs.”
Buchdahl is trying to carve out intimate subcommunities from the enormous congregation that generally gathers only in Central’s soaring Moorish-architecture building.
In a new effort called Central Conversations, members will meet in each others’ homes to discuss key Jewish ideas, sparked by a study guide and short videotaped messages. In hers, Buchdahl talks about different ways of experiencing God. The effort is being piloted in eight test groups, which Buchdahl hopes will soon become 100.
Central has more than 100 full-time staff, Buchdahl says, and some 20,000 guests of bnai mitzvah families come through its doors each year. Friday night services are attended by 500 to 700 people. About a quarter of all members are in interfaith marriages, which she sees as an opportunity.
“We have a lot of Jews who can bring a lot of people into the community if we don’t just say ‘Pay membership dues.’ We embrace everything you bring. That’s a really important message.”
Another of the Central Conversations goals is empowerment, she adds. “Judaism used to be a closed, fixed canon that was hard to access. Now, when it feels like everything is open source and open access, I still think the Jewish community hasn’t come to that new paradigm. In all the other areas of people’s lives they have the tools, but in their Jewish life they feel they don’t, so they feel inadequate,” she believes.
Though Buchdahl was involved in Reform Judaism from the time she was a child, she decided to formally convert at 21.
“For the longest time I struggled with this sense that if I carried another cultural identity, that somehow I couldn’t be 100 percent Jewish,” she says. “People often have identities that feel competing – homosexual and Jewish, or Orthodox and feminist. Growing up ... it was very evident on my face that I felt it was something I had to explain and defend more often than most people. But I learned how much this struggle resonated for so many people – even those with two Jewish parents and a more traditional Jewish background.”
Central board member Pogrebin says that while Buchdahl’s biracial heritage is now a nonissue within the congregation, “it allows people who aren’t what we all assume to be the Jewish profile an entry point. This is history making.”