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[Herald Interview] Grit and resilience bond Koreans, Jews: First Asian American rabbi

June 19, 2024 - 14:52 By Choi Si-young
Angela Warnick Buchdahl, senior rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York City, poses for a photo ahead of an interview with The Korea Herald at Seoul National University on Monday. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

For Angela Warnick Buchdahl, a 51-year-old American of Korean and Jewish descent, the opening ceremony of the Israel Education Research Center became was a rare priority, one she flew in from New York City to commemorate.

Buchdahl became the first Asian American in North America to be ordained a cantor -- the person who sings and leads prayer in a synagogue -- in 1999, and later a rabbi in 2001. She is now the senior rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York City -- the world’s largest synagogue by membership.

Buchdahl, who took up the current job, a job that entails a back-to-back schedule, in 2014, said she made herself available to mark the opening of a center that, she said, will advance “a kindred spirit of resilience and grit” that identifies Koreans and Jews alike.

Shared spirit

“I have always seen deep similarities between my Korean culture and my Jewish culture,” Buchdahl said in an interview with The Korea Herald on Monday, ahead of Tuesday’s opening ceremony, recalling her formative years in Tacoma, Washington. Her family left Korea five years after the birth of their daughter in Seoul, born to a Korean Buddhist mother and an American Jewish father.

The resiliency that Koreans and Jews practiced as they fought off “a lot of suffering and threats of cultural erasure” is what unites Koreans and Jews, Buchdahl said, noting her mother was born in Japan during the occupation of Korea (1910-45).

Angela Warnick Buchdahl, senior rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York City, delivers a speech during a an opening ceremony for the Israel Education Research Center, at the Conrad Seoul hotel on Tuesday. (Israeli Embassy in South Korea)

The Israel Education Research Center at Seoul National University, the first of its kind in Korea focusing on Jewish studies at a university level, will build on such shared traditions, according to the rabbi. “I feel like I will do anything I can to make sure the center grows and thrives and truly becomes the epicenter of this,” the rabbi said.

Buchdahl is a fan of sharing “something foundational.” That’s why she, at the age of 16, made up her mind to become a rabbi. The Bronfman Fellowship program was the trigger, as the young Buchdahl joined select young Jews from North America and Israel in tracing their Jewish roots.

The program imparted “a particular kind of energy that I found so compelling,” Buchdahl said of interaction with Jewish people of different descent while on the tour of Israel as part of the program. The participants all had something foundational that is the same but manifested differently, the rabbi explained. This was when her calling to be a guardian of Jewish values came, she said.

Buchdahl, already a Jew according to Reform Judaism, a liberal movement that says a Jewish father is enough to be identified as such, said she had a reaffirmation process, just to avoid being questioned about her “Jewishness.” The Yale graduate left Tacoma for New York City, which has America’s biggest Jewish community, to learn the “different thickness of Jewish identity.”

Shared future

The kind of learning and sharing of values Buchdahl had once sought will be available at SNU’s Israel Education Research Center, she said.

“When I heard this was happening I was thrilled to be a part of it,” she said, describing the center as a place to exchange ideas spanning from education to entrepreneurship to cultural and family values.

If Korea wants an alternate education model, the Jewish culture of open dialogue offers insight. “The idea of Jewish learning is you never study by yourself. You always study in dialectic and in dialogue,” Buchdahl said, noting debating disagreement in pairs, called “havruta,” as a hallmark of Jewish education.

Learning goes both ways, Buchdahl added, saying Israel can learn from Korea a “deep sense of unified spirit.”

Angela Warnick Buchdahl, senior rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York City, poses for a photo ahead of an interview with The Korea Herald at Seoul National University on Monday. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

“Israel right now is very polarized,” she said. “You have people that come from so many different (places). We Jews were spread out around the world for 2,000 years. When you come back to one place, you have very different values.”

Korea has a better understanding of a “greater sense of national unity and purpose,” an aim potentially harder to achieve in Israel, a nation made up of “Middle Eastern and Western mindsets.”

“There’s such a discipline to Koreans; they understand the discipline of long-term planning,” Buchdahl added. “Israelis are very short-term. Everything is like for this moment, so I think they can learn from Koreans’ long-term strategic planning.”

Shared mission

This year Buchdahl marks her 10th anniversary as the senior rabbi leading Central Synagogue. Her mission, she said, is to serve not only the congregation and the wider Jewish community but also an audience still searching for the meaning of life.

“I start with a fundamental premise that the point of life is not to make money,” she said, highlighting fulfilling the potential of joy. “Now when I say joyful, that does not mean a surface-level happiness of like the kind of fleeting happiness of when you bought yourself a brand new car,” she said, adding, “I mean the deep kind of joy that comes from living with purpose and meaning and a fulfilled life.”

Asked where she finds the meaning of her life, Buchdahl said she is helping to create a world that values the dignity of every human being and helps people feel less lonely and more connected with a sense of community.

“A world that helps people feel that they are loved,” Buchdahl said. “Loved because every person is deserving of love and has something to offer in the world.”