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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But some of her congregants at Central were not shy in explaining how Buchdahl’s incorporation of Jewish, Buddhist, American and Korean traditions has endeared her to them.

Howard Sharfstein, the synagogue’s honorary president, helped hire Buchdahl as cantor and said she has been crucial, along with other clergy, in helping increase membership — the congregation now has a two- to three-year waiting list, as it caps membership at 2,000 — and expanding the range of programs at the synagogue.

Sharfstein also praised Buchdahl’s musical abilities, including her melodic voice and her guitar playing, both of which fill the far rafters of the cavernous Moorish-revival designed synagogue. Sharfstein said he remembered that when he reviewed CDs submitted by cantor candidates he was struck by how Buchdahl’s voice stood out.

“I grew up in what I would call a classical Reform congregation,” said Sharfstein. “The cantor stood up, sang, the congregation sat and listened, and occasionally sang along.”

Sharfstein said Buchdahl’s services are the complete opposite of this. “It is so different than what I was brought up to know, and it’s much more personal and so much more meaningful,” he said. “It does exactly what Shabbat is intended to do. It makes you stop, it makes you think.

“When Angela sings ‘Hashkiveinu,’ I’m in another place and I’m at peace.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Buchdahl’s mentor at Westchester Reform Temple, where she worked prior to Central, said Buchdahl could always be counted on to fill in for senior programs, funerals, baby namings or other events.

“When she left, our community was devastated, because she was beloved,” said Jacobs, who is now president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Reform movement’s national umbrella group. “She served as a rabbinic intern, a cantor intern, cantor — she did everything and anything we needed. She’s a once in a generation leader.”

As a clergy leader at Central, Buchdahl has not shied away from publicly voicing her opinions on issues beyond her congregation’s walls. Recently, on her public Facebook page, she was critical of Congress’s failures to pass gun control legislation, and praised the Boy Scouts when they lifted the ban on gay scouts.

“She utilizes both sides of the brain,” said Lawrence Hoffman, her thesis adviser at New York’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where she was ordained. “As a cantor she appreciates the art and aesthetics, but as a rabbi she appreciates academics. She’s a remarkably holistic person.”

Hoffman said he could tell early on that Buchdahl would be a transformative force on the pulpit, by the way she listened to congregants. “We’ve been working the last 20 or 30 years to change the model of pulpit presence, and she epitomizes it,” he said.

For Buchdahl’s family, the lessons she teaches inside the synagogue and at home are rooted in her lifelong journey through Korean, American, Buddhist and Jewish experiences.

“My wife and I have seen it as a melding of two very similar cultures — in terms of hope and appreciation for our respective forebears and cultures — although the spoken/written language, foods, clothes, arts and holidays are not necessarily similar,” Warnick wrote in his email.

In years to come, Buchdahl’s path may not be such an anomaly. A recent study by UJA-Federation of New York reported that 87,000, or 12%, of Jewish households in the area are “multiracial or nonwhite.” Sharfstein is hopeful that future reform clergy leaders will continue to change how people perceive Judaism.

“I can’t imagine us being where we are now without Angela,” he said. “I’ve traveled to Israel with Angela. Standing, overlooking Jerusalem, she starts to sing ‘Havdalah,’ looking over the Old City. I simply will never forget it. When they close the box on me at the end, it’s one of the things I hope to remember.”

Contact Seth Berkman at berkman@forward.com


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