Asian-American Rabbi Changes The Face Of Judaism

New York's Central Synagogue is one of the most prominent synagogues in the country, and its new leader is going to be an Asian-American woman. Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdal shares her story.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith, religion and spirituality. Today we want to focus on a new faith leader who is changing the face of her religion. She is Angela Warnick Buchdahl. She has been named senior rabbi of the Central Synagogue, which is in Midtown Manhattan in New York. When she formally assumes her post on July 1, she will take the helm of one of the most prominent Reform synagogues in the country.

Now as a woman leading a major U.S. synagogue, Rabbi Buchdahl stands out, but she also stands out in other ways. According to the leading Jewish publication, The Forward, she was the first woman to be ordained as both a cantor and a rabbi, and she is believed to be the first Asian-American to obtain either post. And she is with us now. Welcome, Rabbi. Thank you so much for joining us.

RABBI ANGELA WARNICK BUCHDAHL: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: And congratulations. And I do want to clarify for those who are listening that we are speaking with Rabbi Buchdahl in advance of the Sabbath. So that being said, the short version of your story - your father is a Jewish-American, your mother grew up in Japan, but ended up in Korea, which is where your parents met. And you were raised in Tacoma, Washington. Am I right so far?

BUCHDAHL: Yes, but I was born in South Korea as well.

MARTIN: And you were raised Jewish?

BUCHDAHL: My whole life.

MARTIN: What made you want to be a rabbi?

BUCHDAHL: I loved being a part of the Jewish people, and I just - I was a kid that just was always interested in questions about God. I guess that was a piece of it. And then I had wonderful role models along the way.

MARTIN: At the time that you were contemplating this, there were not that many women serving in either role, either as a rabbi or as a cantor. I believe that now almost a third of rabbis in the reformed tradition are women, but you were an early pioneer in that. And I wondered if you received any discouragement?

BUCHDAHL: You know, the first time I told my parents I wanted to be a rabbi, I think it really blew their minds a little bit. My mother, obviously, as a Korean Buddhist, I think it was outside of her world. And for my father, who was not a particularly religious Reform Jew, they found it both surprising. But they've come around and feel extremely proud. And I think that, you know, I do, I think, earn the name pioneer for being, I think, the first Asian-American rabbi or cantor. But in terms of women, there were many women who paved the way. In fact, the first woman that became a rabbi was ordained a month before I was born. So across the world, when I was in South Korea, she enabled me to have this dream 40 years later to, you know, to take a position like this.

MARTIN: Can I ask you, though, for people who are not aware, being both a cantor and a rabbi is unusual also.

BUCHDAHL: Yeah, it is unusual.

MARTIN: And they're different roles, so can you explain?

BUCHDAHL: Most rabbis have to be tone deaf.

(LAUGHTER)

BUCHDAHL: No, they're both clergy, they're both spiritual leaders of a community, and a lot of the training is similar. But cantors also lead the music of the worship and the musical education of the community as well.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more, if you would, about why you sought this role as senior rabbi. I mean, some people actually find leading a congregation taxing. You know, they actually kind of, you know, they find - it's political in some ways. I mean, you both represent the congregation. You are teaching, serving, ministering to the congregation internally, but you're also the external face of the congregation as well.

BUCHDAHL: You know, I feel so fortunate. I think Central Synagogue is on the forefront of what is the most exciting movement in Judaism, which is radically open and hospitable and diverse and inclusive and innovative. And I think many people think, wow, you represent the new face of Judaism in some way. And I would say, actually, if you look back across Jewish history, we've always been a diverse people.

We've always been innovating and flexible, and that's why we've survived and thrived through all the centuries when many other peoples have - are no longer in existence. So the fact that I'm an Asian-American woman, you know, young mother, all of these things - in so many ways, I embody what I think Central stands for and what's happening in the Jewish world today. And - so it's exciting to be able to feel like we can - I can embody that vision in a way and lead such a prominent and influential community to really create different models for the larger - not just Jewish world - but for the larger movement for progressive religion and what that means in this world.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of modeling that and changing the face of the religion, did anyone ever question your Jewishness when you were growing up?

BUCHDAHL: Absolutely. You know, the traditional Jewish definition traces your lineage through your mother, even though in biblical times, it was your father. But I'll share a story with you that was quite amazing. A week after my nomination was announced in December, I went to the Reform Movement's Biennial Conference, which is the largest gathering of Jews - 5,000 Jews in San Diego. And people came up to me and they said, Angela, your appointment is enormous for the Jewish people. It's good for the Jewish people. It's good for women. It's good for Jews of color. It's good for cantors. And it was amazing to me how symbolic it felt for people, and I was very touched and moved by that. And I know how much it was bigger than - it's just bigger than me. And it's for this larger mission that we're a part of and what God wants, I think, for our people.

And I also think that - I had the privilege of leading a service with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the movement, with whom I'd worked for over a decade in my previous congregation. And he shared a story of how we would lead services together. And inevitably, after every service, someone would come up to him and say now Rabbi, Angela, now just tell me, where is she from? And asking it like that. And he always said, you know, I would always tell them she's from Tacoma, Washington. And they'd say, well, that's not exactly what we were asking. And he would laugh and say, and I knew that's not what they were asking.

But he wanted them to kind of dig a little deeper on what it means to be a Jew in the world. And it was quite astonishing after a lot of the questioning I've gotten throughout my life and my mother - the many ways that she hasn't always felt fully embraced - she came to that Biennial service and she watched as I led 5,000 Jews in prayer, and as - she knew that I'd just been named to one of the most, you know, important congregations in the country. And I got to introduce her to the 5,000 Jews gathered there and to thank her publicly for being a Korean Buddhist who raised two Jewish children and the many, many non-Jews in our communities that are also sharing in raising Jewish families. And there was a rousing ovation for her, and it was a very moving and empowerful movement for everyone in the room - me and my mother included.

MARTIN: What about you, though? A sticky question - did you ever question your Jewishness?

BUCHDAHL: It's an important question. I think, inevitably, you go through your adolescence and you're always trying to figure out what's your identity. And I did it at different stages, but particularly then. And I would say that I had both the external questioning from outsiders who said, are you truly a Jew? And you don't look Jewish.

That's funny, you don't look Jewish, was one of everybody's favorite lines. But I had an internal question as well because I think growing up in Tacoma, Washington in a very small Jewish community, on the one hand, I was the Jewish representative. But on the other hand, I didn't feel like I - I didn't have the all-embracing and absorbing Jewish world that, you know, Jews who grew up going to day school in New York had. And I would read these books like "Ella of All-of-a-kind Family" and I thought to myself, now that's a really Jewish life. And I didn't - my family didn't look like that. So part of why I feel like it's important to be in a position of leadership is to let people know Jewish families look all different ways today.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, are there other ways that you feel you, as senior rabbi, can inspire people to rethink, perhaps their relationship with their faith, their relationship with their community? I know it's a bit of an amorphous question, but I - and, you know, and I don't want to be reductionist about it and say, oh, well, you're, you know, an Asian-American woman so therefore, of course, everything is going to be different because that's not really the point. But I did want to ask is there something that you feel you can inspire people to rethink that they might not have otherwise?

BUCHDAHL: I think that people often think of Judaism as a closed and rather tribal, insular people. And it's not just who I am or how I look, but when I look back at Jewish history, I'm always amazed at the openness of our tradition and flexibility and innovation of our tradition. And if you, you know, even go to Israel today, you'll see people from Ethiopia and Morocco and Russia - all different colors, all Jews for centuries and centuries.

So I guess part of the story I'd like to say is that my life is representative of the Jewish story. It's not just a 21st century phenomenon, but it's actually the larger Jewish historical story. And we're at a time of tremendous possibility and openness, and I think that part of what I'd say is that everyone is welcome to kind of just see what we're about. And that it's changing and shifting under our feet in the most exciting way. So I feel really fortunate that this is part of what I get to work on in my life.

MARTIN: That was Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl. She will soon take the post of senior rabbi at the Central Synagogue, which is in New York City. She was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York City. Rabbi Buchdahl, thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations. Shabbat shalom to you.

BUCHDAHL: Thank you, Michel.

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