Angela Buchdahl, First Asian-American Rabbi, Vies for Role at Central Synagogue

Rabbi and Cantor Reflects Growing Diversity of Jewry

Pulpit Pioneer: Angela Buchdahl, who is of Korean and Ashkenazi descent symbolizes a new, more diverse Reform Movement.
courtesy of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Pulpit Pioneer: Angela Buchdahl, who is of Korean and Ashkenazi descent symbolizes a new, more diverse Reform Movement.

By Seth Berkman

Published August 12, 2013, issue of August 16, 2013.
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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 4.

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.


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