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.