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Buchdahl is trying to carve out intimate subcommunities from the enormous congregation that generally gathers only in Central’s soaring Moorish-architecture building.
In a new effort called Central Conversations, members will meet in each others’ homes to discuss key Jewish ideas, sparked by a study guide and short videotaped messages. In hers, Buchdahl talks about different ways of experiencing God. The effort is being piloted in eight test groups, which Buchdahl hopes will soon become 100.
Central has more than 100 full-time staff, Buchdahl says, and some 20,000 guests of bnai mitzvah families come through its doors each year. Friday night services are attended by 500 to 700 people. About a quarter of all members are in interfaith marriages, which she sees as an opportunity.
“We have a lot of Jews who can bring a lot of people into the community if we don’t just say ‘Pay membership dues.’ We embrace everything you bring. That’s a really important message.”
Another of the Central Conversations goals is empowerment, she adds. “Judaism used to be a closed, fixed canon that was hard to access. Now, when it feels like everything is open source and open access, I still think the Jewish community hasn’t come to that new paradigm. In all the other areas of people’s lives they have the tools, but in their Jewish life they feel they don’t, so they feel inadequate,” she believes.
Though Buchdahl was involved in Reform Judaism from the time she was a child, she decided to formally convert at 21.
“For the longest time I struggled with this sense that if I carried another cultural identity, that somehow I couldn’t be 100 percent Jewish,” she says. “People often have identities that feel competing – homosexual and Jewish, or Orthodox and feminist. Growing up … it was very evident on my face that I felt it was something I had to explain and defend more often than most people. But I learned how much this struggle resonated for so many people – even those with two Jewish parents and a more traditional Jewish background.”
Central board member Pogrebin says that while Buchdahl’s biracial heritage is now a nonissue within the congregation, “it allows people who aren’t what we all assume to be the Jewish profile an entry point. This is history making.”
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