Rabbi Angela Buchdahl: The first Asian-American rabbi and cantor

No. 35 on The Jerusalem Post's Top 50 Most Influential Jews of 2022: Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, first Asian-American rabbi and cantor.

 Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)

While it’s to be expected that the title of “first Asian-American to be ordained as rabbi” can only go to one person and that the title of “first Asian-American hazan” can only go to one person, what people might find unexpected is that both of these titles are held by the same individual.

Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl currently serves as the senior rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York and has been in the position since 2014, making her the first female leader that the congregation has had in its 180-year history.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, to her Korean Buddhist mother and American Ashkenazi father, Buchdahl moved to the US at the age of five. She quickly became involved in Jewish life, becoming an active member of her childhood synagogue, Temple Beth El, along with her parents.

Although she grew up in the Reform movement and continues to work in it to this day, Buchdahl chose to undergo a halachic conversion with Reform rabbis at the age of 21, after she found her identity being challenged by her peers as a teen, some of whom believed that Judaism could only be passed down through the mother. Buchdahl refers to her conversion as a “reaffirmation ceremony.”

An impact on North American Jewry and the Colleyville hostage crisis

The impact Buchdahl has had on the North American Jewish world is significant, so much so that in January 2022, when Malik Faisal Akram stormed Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, he demanded that the congregation’s leader, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, phone her to list his demands.

 In a Friday night sermon on Jan. 21, 2022, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Manhattan's Central Synagogue spoke about her experience being contacted by the gunman who took Jews hostage at a synagogue in Texas a week earlier.  (credit: screenshot) In a Friday night sermon on Jan. 21, 2022, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Manhattan's Central Synagogue spoke about her experience being contacted by the gunman who took Jews hostage at a synagogue in Texas a week earlier. (credit: screenshot)

The following Friday, days after the safe release of the hostages, Buchdahl gave a sermon at her synagogue in New York, recounting her experiences and emotions throughout the ordeal.

Baruch atah ado-nai elo-heinu melech ha’olam, matir asurim. Blessed are You, eternal God, who frees the captives,” she started.

“I cannot assure you that this will not happen again. And I do not have some neat pronouncement for how we will fight back the alarming, ugly surge of antisemitism.”

Rabbi Angela Buchdahl

“I cannot assure you that this will not happen again. And I do not have some neat pronouncement for how we will fight back the alarming, ugly surge of antisemitism,” she continued in her sermon.

“We have to protect ourselves, and we cannot be naïve. But if we only build fortresses around our sanctuaries and our hearts, hate wins.”

Having first visited Israel as a 16-year-old, Buchdahl has returned multiple times since. She has often spoken about her deep connection to the country but also about how her position as a female rabbi can lead to her feeling alienated in Israel, as can her experience as an Asian Jew. She has, in the past, said there have been times when she has been made to feel “like a unicorn or a freak.”

Despite the barriers she has encountered in Israel over the years, she is deeply involved in providing a rounded Israeli education to younger generations. In an interview with the Hartman Institute in 2019, Buchdahl stressed that “When I go to Israel, in some way I feel deeply at home.”