Growing up as the daughter of a Korean Buddhist immigrant and an American Jew in Tacoma, Wash., Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl said some family members always wondered: Could she ever be fully accepted as a Jew?
Any lingering doubts were eliminated last week when the congregation of Midtown's historic Central Synagogue voted her to succeed Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, 71, when he retires later this year. Her appointment will take effect July 1.
Rabbi Buchdahl, who is 41, will become one of only a few women—and likely the only Asian-American—leading a major U.S. synagogue. Central Synagogue boasts 100 full-time employees and an endowment that exceeds $30 million.
"She really is a pioneer," said Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson, president of the Wexner Foundation, which develops Jewish leaders in North America and Israel. "She represents a new generation of women." According to the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the largest rabbinical organization in North America, about 30% of Reform-movement rabbis are women.
Her appointment comes at a critical moment for American Judaism. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that the number of U.S. adults identifying as Jewish has dropped by half since the late 1950s. Fewer than a third of Jewish adults said they belonged to a synagogue, temple or other congregation.
In recent years, Central Synagogue has bucked that trend, amassing a list of some 300 families willing to wait up to two years for a membership during Rabbi Rubinstein's transformative 23-year tenure. Its 2013 High Holy Days services, streamed online, attracted around 20,000 virtual attendees from 20-plus countries.
But officials say they understand that survival requires continual evolution. "The traditional synagogue model that you pay your dues and become a member is something we're going to have to rethink," Rabbi Buchdahl said.
That could mean a kind of "boutique Judaism," Rabbi Rubinstein said, where people select which services they want rather than paying for a full membership.
Rabbi Buchdahl said Central is also rethinking one of its most notable features: the wait list. "It doesn't feel good to say, 'I can't do your funeral'" to wait-listers who regularly come to services and are part of the temple community, she said.
For Rabbi Buchdahl, who studied religion at Yale University before enrolling in rabbinical school, her commitment to Judaism had a long evolution. By 14, she was the music teacher at her synagogue; in high school, she argued to postpone student-government votes when they fell on Yom Kippur.
But a trip to Israel at 16 drove home some challenges.
There were no other Asians on the streets. "I was kind of an oddity all the time," she said.
Her biggest surprise came when fellow students questioned whether she was actually Jewish, since her mother wasn't. "It was extremely painful and destabilizing for me," she said.
Still, she came home determined to become a rabbi. "I basically never wavered from that moment," she said.
In addition to her unusual cultural heritage, Rabbi Buchdahl has been quick to blur other lines. According to the Central Conference of American Rabbis, she is one of only about a dozen people in the U.S. and Canada ordained as both a rabbi and a cantor.
When she arrived at Central in 2006 as senior cantor, her office was on a separate floor from the rabbis, as is often dictated by tradition. By the following year, she ensured everyone sat together on the same floor.
She and Rabbi Rubinstein said their services have been unusually collaborative. As their chemistry developed, they gained the ability to read each other's expressions and riff their way through sermons, discussions and music, they said.
Rabbi Buchdahl often contributes original music mash-ups that blend pop culture and prayer. Once, she supported Rabbi Rubinstein's sermon on his love for the community by reworking Steve Winwood's hit song "Higher Love" into Hebrew hymn.
And when feminist and author Letty Cottin Pogrebin was honored by the synagogue for her activism in 2011, Rabbi Buchdahl launched into a rendition of "I am Woman," by Helen Reddy.
"I begged her not to do that song," said board member Abigail Pogrebin, the honoree's daughter, laughing. "She was like, 'You know what, Abby? This is where my expertise comes in. You have to trust me.'"
The resulting performance and ceremony was "incredible," said Ms. Pogrebin. She, like many congregants, pointed to Rabbi Buchdahl's beautiful voice and ability to distill the emotion of a moment.
For his part, Rabbi Rubinstein became teary during a recent interview as he contemplated her ascension. "As much as I feel that Angela is my absolute equal as a professional," he said, "I also feel a little bit like a parent watching my kids grow up."