18 January 2021

The New York rabbi who is
the voice of Reform Judaism
for social justice and diversity

Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl in Central Synagogue, New York

Patrick Comerford

The death of the former Chief Rabbi, Lord (Jonathan) Sacks last year deprived not only Judaism but the English-speaking world of one of its great intellectual minds in the fields of theology, religion and social justice.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl is increasingly being heard as a Jewish voice of intellect and compassion. She speaks out for diversity and social justice and against racism, and she deserves to be better-known and heard more widely throughout the English-speaking world.

Today, she is one of the most influential women rabbis in America. She was the first Asian-American to be ordained as a rabbi, and the first Asian-American to be ordained as a hazzan or cantor. Both Newsweek and the Daily Beast have named her as one of the 50 ‘Most Influential Rabbis’ in America she was recognised as one of the top five in The Forward’s ‘Forward Fifty,’ a list of American Jews who have had the most impact on the national scene.

I first came across Rabbi Angela when I watched a video of her as a cantor singind a moving rendition of Kol Nidre, a moving text and melody that gives its name to the evening service on Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl was born Angela Lee Warnick on 8 July 1972 in Seoul, South Korea, to a Jewish father and a Buddhist mother. Her mother , Sulja Yi Warnick, was a Korean Buddhist born in Hyogo in Japan at the height of World War II; her father, Frederick David Warnick, was a US-born Ashkenazi Reform Jew, whose ancestors moved to Canada and the US from Moinești in Bacău, Romania and Zvenyhorodka or Zvenigorodka in central Ukraine.

The Jewish community of Zvenyhorodka, known as Zvenigorodka in Yiddish and Russian, existed for 200 years until it was decimated by the Nazis and finally destroyed by the Soviet Union. Her Jewish Romanian great-grandparents, Saul Hirsh Soss (1871-1946) and Clara Silverstein (1882-1976), came by ship to New York in 1899 and lived a few blocks from the current location of Central Synagogue, where she is now rabbi.

Finding Your Roots, a PBS series similar to Who Do You Think You Are?, showed that her 20th great-grandfather on her mother’s side was King Taejo of Joseon.

At the age of five, Angela Warnick moved to the US with her family. She was raised Jewish, and attended Temple Beth El in Tacoma, Washington, which her great-grandparents had helped to found a century earlier. She and her mother were involved in synagogue activities, and in her teens she became a leader in school and within the youth group.

But from a young age she experienced demeaning comments from fellow Jews, doubting her Judaism. But she decided she would not let those people dictate her relationship with Judaism.

At the age of 16, she visited Israel through Bronfman youth fellowships with other Jewish teenagers from the US. There, the authenticity of her Judaism was questioned for the first time, by others who held that only the children of a Jewish mother can be Jewish. Her Orthodox roommate told her she did not consider her Jewish, and Israelis asked whether she knew the meaning of the Star of David on her necklace.

This was a painful experience fir her in Israel, and she felt marginalised and invisible. As a college student, she spent her summers working as head song leader at Camp Swig, a Reform Jewish camp in Saratoga, California. At 21 she underwent a formal conversion or giyur, which she sees as a ‘reaffirmation ceremony.’

She was a student at Yale University, and she was one of the first female members of Skull and Bones, an elite secret society whose members have included former President George W Bush and former Secretary of State John Kerry.

She graduated from Yale in 1994 with a BA in Religious Studies. There she met her husband Jacob Buchdahl, a lawyer, and she then began her cantorial and rabbinic studies at Hebrew Union College.

She was invested as a cantor in 1999 and was ordained as a rabbi in 2001 by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York, a Reform seminary in New York. She then became assistant rabbi and cantor at Westchester Reform Temple, a large synagogue in Scarsdale, New York, with over 1,200 families.

She moved to Central Synagogue, a large Reform congregation in Manhattan, as the senior cantor in 2006. In time, Friday night attendance at the synagogue doubled, post-bar mitzvah retention tripled and the waiting list for membership rose to over 300.

On 1 July 2014, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl succeeded Peter Rubinstein as the Senior Rabbi at Central Synagogue. She is the first woman and first Asian-American to hold the post in the long history of Central Synagogue, and one of only a few women serving as leaders of a major US synagogue.

Later that year, she was welcomed by President Barack Obama to lead the prayers in the White House at the Hanukkah celebration in December 2014.

She remarked on how special the scene was, and asked the President if he believed America’s founding fathers could possibly have pictured that a female Asian-American rabbi would one day be at the White House leading Jewish prayers in front of the African-American president. Her speech on the meaning of Hannukah and religious freedom was met with applause and cheers.

On 22 March 2019, she opened the doors of Central Synagogue to hundreds of worshipers from the the nearby Islamic Society of Mid-Manhattan when their mosque was destroyed in fire, a gesture that became national news throughout the US.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency named her in December 2019 among the Jews who had defined the previous decade: ‘The choice of Buchdahl to replace the retiring Rabbi Peter Rubinstein elevated a woman and a Jew of colour to a position of virtually unprecedented prominence in the Jewish world and made Buchdahl a potent symbol of the changing face of American Judaism.’ Haaretz has described her as ‘the face of Judaism for many Americans, while not being kosher enough for Israel.’

Central Synagogue, one of New York’s most prestigious Reform synagogues, has over 7,000 members and 100 full-time employees, and is a flagship synagogue of the Reform movement, with over 6,500 members. The Wall Street Journal recently described Central as New York City’s first ‘megashul,’ with its robust weekly worship attendance and overflow High Holiday crowds. Hundreds of thousands of people from about 100 countries watch its services during the High Holy Days.

Rabbi Buchdahl, who lives in New York with her husband and their three children, has shifted people’s perceptions of what it means to look Jewish. But it is her intellect, charisma, and deep spiritual curiosity that mark her ministry as a rabbi.

She has been nationally recognised in the US for her innovations in liturgical transformation, her role in social justice work and her work for a more inclusive Jewish community. Yet, Haaretz has said she ‘is hardly recognised in Israel, a fact that also illustrates the growing divide between Israel and the Jewish community in the US.’

‘Judaism has a message for the world that should be attractive to anyone, and we should be less closed, or tribal, in feeling like it is only ours,’ she said in an interview with Haaretz two years ago (19 January 2019).

She says ‘prayer is powerful for people when it speaks in a genre or in the language they understand. The Reform movement for a long time rejected Hebrew, but in my synagogue, at least half of the service is in Hebrew, and of the prayer, I think 75 percent is Hebrew. We very rarely do readings in English, but I’m not only talking about language … Part of what we’re doing is reminding people of the many communities we are a part of.’

Here is a link to a sermon in which she challenges racism within American Judaism:

This is Rabbi Angela as a cantor singing Kol Nidre at Central Synagogue:

Martin Luther King’s legacy
of nonviolence and Trump’s
threatening violence today

Today is Martin Luther King Jr Day in the US … a feature in ‘The Irish Times’ 40 years ago

Patrick Comerford

Today is being marked in the US as Martin Luther King Jr Day, a federal holiday on the third Monday of January each year, celebrating the life and achievements of the civil rights leader, the Revd Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King’s actual birthday was on 15 January 1929, and he was murdered on 4 June 1968. But on Martin Luther King Day today, it is worth considering the choices the US faces this week.

Forty years ago, on 3 January 1981, in a series in The Irish Times on ‘The Spell of the Sixties,’ I wrote a full-page feature for the front page of the Saturday supplement ‘Martin Luther King and the End of a Dream.’

Three years later, when it came to writing my first book, Do You Want to Die for NATO?, I headed chapters with quotations from Martin Luther King on nonviolence and the arms race.

King’s march on Washington on 28 August 1963 is in sharp contrast with Trump’s march on the Capitol the week before last.

On that August day almost 60 years ago, Martin Luther King led more than 200,000 people in a march on Washington, not to overturn democracy, but to extend democratic rights to all Americans, including jobs and freedom.

On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King called on Americans ‘to sit down together at the table of brotherhood’ and meet our promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.

In contrast, Trump spoke in front of the White House, calling on Mike Pence to overturn the democratic will of the people, and calling on his own followers to fight. He told them ‘you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.’

And he told them, ‘We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.’

In yet another display of his pathological, if not congenetial, compulsion to exagerrate and lie, Trump claimed his crowd was larger in numbers than those who marched on Washington with Martin Lutger King.

He spoke of the US today in degrading language, comparing it with a ‘third world country’ and ‘a communist country.’ He mocked people’s weight, skin colour and background, mocked the members of the supreme court and mocked state governors and legislatures.

As he addressed the mob in an incoherent and rambling address, they included neo-nazis and members of far-right and white supremacist militias as he spoke of them as ‘amazing patriots’ and promised them, ‘The best is yet to come.’

And so, it is egregious hypocrisy that on Friday Trump could say Martin Luther King ‘exemplified the quintessential American belief that we will leave a brighter, more prosperous future for our children.’ He spoke of King as ‘a giant of the civil rights movement whose nonviolent resistance to the injustices of his era – racial segregation, employment discrimination, and the denial of the right to vote – enlightened our Nation and the world.’

Has any American president been so crass, so vulgar, so bigoted, so smug and so self-righteous?

He recalled how, ‘In the face of tumult and upheaval, Dr King reminded us to always meet anger with compassion in order to truly “heal the hurts, right the wrongs and change society”.’

He spoke of the ‘spirit of forgiveness’ and the need ‘to bind the wounds of past injustice by lifting up one another regardless of race, gender, creed, or religion, and rising to the first principles enshrined in our founding documents.’

He claimed he was committed to ‘upholding’ King’s ‘legacy and meeting our sacred obligation to protect the unalienable rights of all Americans.’

As I read Trump’s words, I wondered what the US faces this week as Joe Biden is inaugurated as President of the United States on Wednesday, and what legacy it will be left with after Trump goes.

I concluded my feature in The Irish Times 40 years ago in January 1980:

‘For King, nonviolence was no mere tactic, it was a necessary form of action, of sacrificial love, in a world of increasing hatred and violence. The question is not so much was he a failure of the ’60s, but whether he can be a success in the ’80s before it is too late.

“In our day, the choice is either nonviolence or non-existence”.’