NEW YORK – Central Synagogue in midtown Manhattan is historic not only because its building is a recognized landmark and its congregation among the oldest in New York State. In 2013, Central also made history by appointing Angela Warnick Buchdahl – the first Asian-American rabbi and cantor – senior rabbi, after she had served as senior cantor there from 2006. Despite being something of a celebrity in the United States, Buchdahl is hardly recognized in Israel, a fact that also illustrates the growing divide between Israel and the Jewish community in the U.S.
Born in South Korea in 1972, to a Buddhist mother and Jewish father, Buchdahl immigrated to the U.S. with her family at age 5 and was raised as a Jew, attending a Reform synagogue in Washington State. During her first trip to Israel, she encountered challenges to her religious identity and decided to undergo a halakhic conversion at age 21, to “reaffirm” her Jewishness.
Today, serving as the rabbi of one of New York’s most prestigious Reform synagogues, Buchdahl, who was previously unwilling to perform interfaith marriage ceremonies, now has a policy of opening Central’s doors to anyone who wants to live as a Jew – with or without their undergoing conversion. Rabbi Buchdahl sat down with me to discuss her unique congregation, why she reversed course on performing interfaith marriages, the future of tribalism and ethnicity, as well as the future of Judaism as she sees it.
Rabbi Buchdahl, many Israeli Jews wouldn’t consider you very Jewish based on your looks and your name, yet you are recognized as a prominent Jewish leader in the U.S.. For many, you even represent the realization of an American Jewish dream. How do you reconcile those things?
“I feel that paradox when I go Israel. When I go to Israel, in some way I feel deeply at home. I also feel…like I am a unicorn or a freak. Being a female rabbi is still a little strange for most Israelis, and being Asian and Jewish – I represent a Judaism that basically does not exist in Israel, one that is deeply, Jewishly grounded and has a lot of ritual elements, and yet doesn’t really grapple with halakha [traditional Jewish law] as they see it. Part of what’s really different is that it is much less rooted in a specific sense of Jewish racial identity. There is still peoplehood, but I bring a whole other cultural identity as a Korean woman. There are many Israelis for whom their identity is nationality and ethnicity…. And that part of what I am representing is a form of religious Judaism that is not religious in any way that they understand religious to be.”
Would it be fair to say that the same things that some Israelis would judge critically are what your community at Central considers important?
“That’s a good question. I think my community takes pride that I’m the first Asian rabbi, and the first woman to lead it in 180 years. I also think that when you have a Jewish community that is intermarrying at a rate of 70 percent plus, the fact that I could be a leader in it – as a product of interfaith marriage from the 1970s – gives them hope, like, ‘Oh, we can create Jewish life in America, we can fall in love with non-Jews, we can create Jewish families.’”
This is also part of your vision as a rabbi.
“This is deeply a part of my vision. Judaism has a message for the world that should be attractive to anyone, and we should be less closed, or tribal, in feeling like it is only ours. The fact that so many members of my community are not Jewish but are raising Jewish families is significant. We also have the most robust conversion program of any synagogue that I know of, with over 150 students per year. We don’t call it ‘conversion’; we call it ‘exploring Judaism.’ There is no pressure to convert. Most of them who come are in a relationship with a Jew and we make both of them take the class. The interesting thing is that 55 percent of them are coming to the class saying, ‘I’m open to conversion’ and when they leave the class, 77 percent of them actually convert. When they understand what Judaism has to offer, and they appreciate the meaning and joy it gives your life and your family – they want to be a part of it. I guess I represent a Judaism that is not the religion you have to be born into. You choose it.”
How is attracting non-Jews a Jewish value?
“We just read the story of Abraham and Sarah on Shabbat. What did Abraham do with his hundreds of slaves? He circumcised all of them; he converted them. Judaism didn’t start with just Abraham and Sarah and Isaac, it started with hundreds of people, with a mixed multitude. We have this idea that Jews are some kind of pure breed, but especially when we became Diaspora people, and we spread out to all parts of the world, there is absolutely no question that we intermarried.”
“Part of the reason that he was so threatening is that he articulated an extreme form of something that is, in some ways, already embraced by progressive Judaism. We have opened our doors to intermarriage, we have embraced the universalism of our values and of other people, and we try not to sit in judgment for that. Basically what he said was, not only should we do all those things, we should actually seek out intermarriage because we should be mixing out our gene pool and our idea pool. That took it to the next level and freaked everyone out.”
What did you think?
“As a person who officiates at interfaith marriages, I still find it really upsetting, even though I come from interfaith marriage. Something about it, the rejection of particularism to such an extreme, to me, is ultimately about eradication of Judaism, and Judaism is too important to disappear. But I could also argue it shouldn’t have to stay alive [just] because Jews only marry other Jews and are fearful of everything else.”
So that brings us back to the age-old question: Who is a Jew?
“Whoever decided that they want to flee oppression and go to a place where they could have freedom and where they could serve a God that redeems them – that is what it means to be a Jew. If you want to join us, you also have to stand at Sinai. Who says the ger [convert] wasn’t standing at the bottom of Sinai? The idea that our exclusiveness is racially charged is what I think of as the unattractive part of tribalism. I don’t think that, if you look back to Jewish history, that’s ever been how we have survived.
“The reason that Judaism is still here, and a lot of other civilizations are not, is that there has been a resiliency and absorption and understanding and a translation of what is best in the world, that is then made Jewish. And we could do that with the people, too. We should be less afraid of absorbing. By the way, my Buddhist Korean mother has made me a much better Jew than my Jewish father. She had this whole spiritual language and my father was not that interested, frankly. I think we feel afraid that somehow this influx of non-Jews to our communities is going to make us diluted or less Jewish.”
Still, this wasn’t always your vision – you initially opposed intermarriage. What changed your mind?
“Part of the reason I did not conduct interfaith marriages was that I wanted to send the message that it’s good for Jews to marry Jews. I was also strongly influenced by the fact that my mentors didn’t do it, so I felt that rabbis of good standing and integrity didn’t perform intermarriages. But then people said to me, ‘You are my rabbi, I grew up with you and you won’t officiate at the most important event in my life. You reject my spouse and me… but then you say, ‘We will take your money and you can become members [of the synagogue] afterward.’ It just felt so hypocritical.
“I don’t do interfaith marriages for couples that don’t want to have a Jewish home, or don’t commit to raising Jewish children. I want to make this very clear: I’m not there to provide Jewish window-dressing. I require that they take the Judaism course before their marriage. I don’t require them to commit to conversion, but if you say you are committed to creating a Jewish household, you should know what it is.”
Would it bother you, for example, if the non-Jewish spouse continues to put up a Christmas tree, or even just honor his parents by walking with them to church on Sundays?
“It’s important, and Jewish, for someone to continue to honor their parents and pay them respect even as they may have chosen a different path for themselves or their own family. I would hope that a convert to Judaism, or even someone who doesn’t convert but is raising a Jewish family, would not feel they have to reject their parents or stop visiting them. But it is different to visit parents who may have a Christmas tree and to say ‘this is their tradition,’ from bringing one into a Jewish home. I know from experience that it is challenging to have a Jewish home with one parent who is not Jewish, but it can be done. It’s important to keep a Jewish home Jewish.”
How has this new policy of opening up your congregation changed your community in recent years?
“The community has definitely changed in the number of affiliated, deeply involved, interfaith families because of our incredibly welcoming stance. I haven’t done a scientific study, but my results show that with marriages I say yes to, the couples are staying a part of the Jewish community. I do their baby naming and… they are raising Jewish families and… then they come to my synagogue, as opposed to what happened to so many of them who I rejected.”
Central is a New York institution, and is one of the most successful and wealthy U.S. synagogues. It must be a very different Jewish experience than that of a suburban Reform community.
“I do recognize that we are in a serious Jewish bubble. Most synagogues are worrying about how they are fulfilling their budget – and we have an enormous endowment. Others are worried about keeping their membership, while we have something like 800 families on our waiting list. I grew up in a completely different kind of synagogue in Tacoma, Washington. It is a one-rabbi congregation, with 300 families that came from within 30 miles, so every one of us as children was one of two or three Jews in school, or even the only one. What I valued about this experience is that I saw that small-town Judaism can be extremely powerful.”
Yet some of these communities are shrinking or disappearing.
“I think what’s going to happen more and more – and I don’t think it’s necessarily positive – is that you are going to have more places like Central that will become Jewish centers, that are not only local synagogues. We have a number of out-of-state members, like this guy from Delaware who found us online. He joined, and now he drives and stays in New York for the High Holidays and he joins our live-stream service the rest of the year. He pays his membership dues and he wants us to do his funeral when he dies. We have hundreds of thousands of live-streamers who are watching from all over, and this is their Judaism. It’s a whole new world, and this is where I see things going, especially as technology breaks down the barriers of how you build community and how far you can be from your synagogue. “
You have said that hundreds of thousands of people from about 100 countries watched your services during the High Holy Days. How has this changed your role as a rabbi?
“We have this worldwide community, so we think about how to engage them. We hired a rabbinical student who is interacting with our Facebook Live during holidays. This year, we invited them to send us the names of their loved ones, so during the Yizkor service we put 700 names on the screen and you could scroll through them. Part of it is to say to the Jews out there: We see you. I’m thinking about these things all the time and I feel a big responsibility that I’m representing Judaism. After Pittsburgh [referring to the shooting deaths of 11 worshipers at a synagogue, in October], I was on the ‘Today’ show. I didn’t really want to do it, honestly, because I don’t really like being on TV, but I did it because it felt important to talk after Pittsburgh. And then I thought to myself: I am the face of Judaism for hundreds of millions of people in America that watch the ‘Today’ show. It’s kind of nuts.”
In favor of particularism
On Yom Kippur, you talked about the new threats of anti-Semitism in America, from the right and the left. That was before Pittsburgh. Do you think anti-Semitism makes people feel more ethnically Jewish?
“I would be blind if I didn’t think anti-Semitism forces some kind of identification of who you are, but I would be very sad if the perpetuation of Judaism was reliant on a negative influence like anti-Semitism. We’ve faced persecution for our entire history, but what we are trying to represent and embody at Central is a Judaism which is joyful, that you want to be a part of, that makes you feel there is hope and resilience in the world.”
So what do you see for the future of Jewish particularism?
“I do not want us to lose our particularism. I still want us to feel that we are deeply connected to Jews all around the world. I don’t want it to be about someone’s race or DNA makeup, but I want it to be about a sense of shared history and shared mission for the future. That particularism is important. I’m not saying we have the only truth in the world, but our vocabulary for that truth, which embraces, for example, conflict and dialogue and disagreement, and which really embraces a sense of dignity for every human being and believing that there are other traditions besides our own – these are ideas and values that are deeply needed today.”
Let’s talk about prayer at Central Synagogue. You reintroduced a lot of Hebrew, a language that many of the Reform rabbis rejected, but you also sing Bob Dylan in English.
“As a cantor, I learned that practically everything that is Jewish music was borrowed or stolen, from ‘Hatikva’ to melodies for ‘Birkat Hamazon’ [the blessing after meals]. But the bigger thing is that prayer is powerful for people when it speaks in a genre or in the language they understand. The Reform movement for a long time rejected Hebrew, but in my synagogue, at least half of the service is in Hebrew, and of the prayer, I think 75 percent is Hebrew. We very rarely do readings in English, but I’m not only talking about language. I was a cantor for eight years, and I felt my job was to educate my community and help them develop a taste for the many eras of Jewish music. I did the traditional hazanut and old melodies that we could trace back to the 9th century. Sometimes we sing really old-school melodies like versions of ‘Adon Olam’ that people grew up with in the ’50s, and sometimes I pick a song that you are going to hear on the radio, or something like ‘America the Beautiful.’ Part of what we’re doing is reminding people of the many communities we are a part of.”
You used to sing Rav Shlomo Carlebach’s melodies, but took a hiatus following posthumous allegations of sexual misconduct on his part. Why?
“We did a lot of Carlebach, but we stopped for one year, and that will be over [this month]. It is not my job to do teshuva [repentance] for him. My job is to listen to victims and to the many Jews in my community, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, who say: I could not go to a single synagogue or single Jewish camp and not hear the music of the person who assaulted me. I felt my responsibility was to hear those victims and say, I hear you. And while I can separate the artist from the art, and I am going to sing Carlebach music in the future, I want you to know that I hear you. I am not punishing Carlebach. I don’t want to get rid of the art of Picasso or Wagner. I actually feel like some of the most incredible contributions to the art world came from the most flawed, complicated people. There is a spark of divinity even in the most corrupt soul.”
Seeing women in leadership positions is the norm for young Jewish children today, even in some parts of Orthodoxy. As the rabbinate becomes more accessible for women like you, what challenges remain?
“Our Jewish communities have always reflected societal problems, and if anyone thinks that there isn’t still sexism and sexual violence directed toward women today, after what was revealed through the #MeToo movement, we know that all of it still exists, also in the Jewish community. While it feels powerful that I could be named to a major institution like Central, you can still count on one hand the number of women in roles like this. There is still pay inequality at all stages of Jewish life – from institutions like federations to rabbinical positions. Not to mention that [inherent] in Judaism is a separation of responsibilities for the sexes. We can feel that we have a place, but that’s not what the written word allows for.”
Let’s talk about Israel. At that same speech in May, Michael Chabon criticized Israel’s occupation in harsh words, denouncing “humanity’s jailers” who use security as an excuse to oppress the Palestinians. What did you think of that?
“When someone as smart as Michael Chabon takes such a simplistic... one-dimensional view of Israel, I am deeply disappointed. Israel needs to take some responsibility for some of its bad choices and for some of the ways it doesn’t live up to democratic values, Jewish values. But for him to simply put all the blame on Israel, to me is a willful ignorance about the history of this conflict, its origins and its continued perpetuation of how Palestinian leadership – or lack of Palestinian leadership – embrace the narrative of victimhood that has become a part of their identity. For me, it is incredibly irresponsible for him not to have done the same amount of thinking and talking to people on the Israeli side as he has with the Palestinians. That was upsetting to me, and that he represented Reform Judaism in that way was also upsetting to me.”
You, too, have criticized Israel, even here from the bimah at Central.
“My critique comes out of deep love, because ultimately if American Jews say, ‘Yes, yes, yes’ to everything that is happening and we’re not actually engaged in what is happening – then we don’t understand why our children are feeling distant from Israel. We’re not educating them about what is going on, they feel duped by our synagogues, which teach them only one narrative. They get to college and they hear something else, and they say, the Jewish community hasn’t been honest with me. Ultimately, I think this could get better and we should be part of this conversation.”
It seems that Jewish young adults have a lot of criticism of Israel. What do you think concerns your young members more – the Palestinian issue or the official Israeli policy on the Kotel, and, basically the attitude toward them, as non-Orthodox Jews?
“From my conversations, I think young people are more upset about the issue of Palestinian treatment and occupation than issues of religious pluralism. I think they are less versed in issues of pluralism and don’t hear about them on campus the way they do the Palestinian issue. But when some students learn more, sometimes on a Birthright trip or when the Women of the Wall gets attention, it adds to their sense of disappointment or anger that Israel does not feel like a Jewish state for all Jews. I think more adults may be more upset with issues of religious pluralism or the Orthodox monopoly, but they have to be relatively engaged on Israel issues to get that involved.”
Journalist Yair Ettinger is currently a fellow at Shalom Hartman Institute in New York. A Hebrew version of this article will be published on their blog.