(Haaretz) — What has made some people nervous about Angela Buchdahl becoming the senior rabbi at Central Synagogue – one of the two largest Reform synagogues in New York and one of the biggest in the United States – is not that she’s the first Asian-American rabbi. It’s not that she’s a woman or, at 41, so young to lead a congregation whose membership will soon number 2,400 families. It’s not that she’s been working primarily as a cantor for most of her career. It’s not even that she’s the mother of three young children, though that has given some in her congregation pause, Buchdahl said. No, it’s because she talks about God.
“We become very nervous talking about God in the Jewish community,” Buchdahl tells Haaretz. “I made people on the search committee a little nervous about it.”
God is at the center of Buchdahl’s life. Born in South Korea and descended from a Korean king, she has prayed every night since she was a young girl in Tacoma, Washington, with a Korean-Buddhist mother and American-Jewish father. And in her new role at Central Synagogue, she is trying to put God at the center as well.
“She has given a lot of thought as to where God fits into the Jewish vocabulary and how tricky that is for many of us,” says Abigail Pogrebin, a writer and vice president at Central Synagogue, and member of the rabbinic search committee. In her interview with the committee, “she went there in a way that I often find leaders don’t,” adds Pogrebin.
Buchdahl was nominated by the synagogue’s board in December and approved unanimously by the congregants on January 7. At the synagogue where she has worked as senior cantor since 2006, Buchdahl will take over as senior rabbi on July 1, following the retirement of Rabbi Peter Rubinstein.
While Buchdahl first enrolled in the Reform movement’s rabbinical school, stopped in order to become a cantor and then reenrolled in rabbinical school, she has an unusually ecumenical background. She took classes at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, studied at the Orthodox Drisha Institute and the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. “I have had a lot of pluralistic learning experiences,” she says. “I don’t see the traditional boundaries.”
Synagogue walls are one of them. The Shabbat and holiday services that Central Synagogue live-streams are viewed by hundreds each Friday night and at least 25,000 people in 49 different countries on the most recent High Holy Days.
“You always worry that people aren’t attending their local synagogues” if they’re live streaming, Buchdahl says. “But in most cases, it’s a choice between watching us or doing nothing.” Other Jewish communities are not reaching them. “I have a friend in Laramie, Wyoming, who watches us and said, ‘You are our Jewish life,’” Buchdahl reveals. Even where brick-and-mortar congregations exist, “unfortunately, synagogues are not supporting people’s needs.”