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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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.

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