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Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, “Anti-Racism as a Spiritual Practice”

Simran Jeet Singh: Thank you for watching the Religion News Service series, “Anti-Racism as a Spiritual Practice.” I’m your host, Dr. Simran Jeet Singh. And this episode is part of the second season of our series, which we filmed late in 2020. The first season, which was entitled, “Becoming Less Racist,” can be viewed on […]

Simran Jeet Singh:

Thank you for watching the Religion News Service series, “Anti-Racism as a Spiritual Practice.” I’m your host, Dr. Simran Jeet Singh. And this episode is part of the second season of our series, which we filmed late in 2020. The first season, which was entitled, “Becoming Less Racist,” can be viewed on religion news.com. We thank Columbia University and Trinity University for their support in making the second season possible.

I wanted to begin by introducing our guest for today, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl. Rabbi Angela Buchdahl serves as the Senior Rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York City. She’s the first woman to lead the larger form congregation in its 180-year history. She first joined Central Synagogue as a Senior Cantor in 2006. And in 2014, she was chosen to be the Senior Rabbi.

She, Rabbi Buchdahl all earned a BA in Religious Studies from Yale University in 1994. She was born in Korea to a Jewish American father and a Korean Buddhist mother. And she is the first Asian American to be ordained as a cantor or a rabbi in North America.

She’s a well-known and respected leader in the world of faith and justice community here in New York City. And I thought it would be such a treat to learn from her on issues of anti-Semitism, anti-Asian racism, and white supremacy. So, I’m looking forward to hearing more about all of that, but first let’s move to you, Rabbi. How are you today? How are you holding up?

Angela Buchdahl:

I’m doing pretty well. I’m very happy to be in conversation with you Simran, and I, we got to serve on the Auburn board together briefly. And I have always admired you. And I thought this would be an interesting conversation and especially to have with students from Columbia. So, I’m grateful to be here.

Singh:

Thank you. Thank you. And I want to begin by asking you about your childhood, you know, you have an interesting pairing of parents Jewish American father, Buddhist mother. And so, can you tell us a little bit about your, your childhood? What did that look like for you to grow up in a, in an interfaith, interracial family.

Buchdahl:

So, my father ended up in South Korea because he did ROTC to pay for college. He fell in love with my mom, ended up living there for 10 years, and my sister and I were both born in Seoul. And you know, when you’re little, you really don’t notice, I mean, your reality is just your reality. You don’t think of anything as particularly unusual. I didn’t see my family as being particularly different than my relatives. I was very young.

When we moved to America, I was almost five years old, and my parents made a, kind of a fateful decision, which was they enrolled me in McCarver Elementary School and McCarver was the first magnet school for voluntary desegregation in the country. So, they essentially stuck a gifted program in a school that was in a predominantly Black neighborhood. It was, the school was at that point 80% Black when they started the school, which was just a few years before I arrived. And when I arrived five years later the school had just, you know, was still relatively new in this formation.

It was still 50% African American and many other people of color. So, it was a very small minority white population in my elementary school. And I grew up with a Black is beautiful alphabet around my classroom, and I grew up singing the Black national Anthem at every assembly, in addition to the national anthem and I didn’t think that was unusual at all. It wasn’t until, and, and, and by the way, my parents put me on a yellow school bus, and it took me 40 minutes to get to school. And I, and they did that when I was five, which I, at the time didn’t think of as particularly radical.

As I got older, at one point, I kind of recognized that this was in some ways, a radical act for them to put me on that bus and send me to that school. And I asked them, I said, why did you send me to McCarver? You’re not like, super political people, you know, this is, and my mother very simply said, Angela, it was just the best education. And what she meant by that was not just that it had a great gifted program or whatever else. It was that she recognized that education was about learning to be a citizen for the larger world, in a sense.

And it was what I appreciated about that is it was, there was not an ounce of, sort of paternalism in that. It wasn’t about like, we’re going to go help save that neighborhood. It was like, this is good for you. This is good for our city. And I think that that was like an incredibly important lesson for me.

I think the other thing that it did, which was interesting, is that it meant that my mom, my family was interracial. My school was highly interracial and the only fully white space I was regularly a part of was my synagogue, was the Jewish community, which was a very white space. And so there I was kind of regularly standing out and being, you know, and my community was very welcoming of my family, but people were not at all shy about asking lots of questions and being curious. And certainly, when I entered into new Jewish spaces, going to Jewish summer camp or being involved in my youth group, people would challenge my Jewishness, my authenticity, say you don’t look Jewish. levels of what they thought was, I guess, curiosity, sometimes. I can even say that it was — but it was regular othering that would happen in marginalization that was just a regular part of my experience in Jewish spaces, which was not my experience in my secular life.

So, it was kind of an unusual upbringing. And I was always navigating my multiple identities. I think that there was a part of me that when I first got to America, when people said, where are you from? I said, I’m from Korea. And then when I went back to Korea to visit my relatives, two years later in second grade, the kids were there, asked me, where are you from? I said, I’m from Korea. And they said, no, you’re not. And I remember that I didn’t, I felt homeless. And my mother said, no, actually, Angela, you can make a home wherever you are. This is the gift of this.

And I think that navigating the Jewish and American and Korean piece, I often felt that those identities were in competition and it took me a long time before I kind of recognize the way that they just spoke to each other and one didn’t have to actually usurp the other. And but I’m not sure that other people always saw that. So that’s a kind of a long answer to a little bit of my background, but it gives you some context.

Singh:

Yeah. I mean, I hear so much, so much resonance with my own childhood. Especially this piece about not feeling like you belong anywhere, right? Like I had that same experience of living in Texas and people saying, go back to where you came from and then going to my parent’s homeland of Punjab and being told you’re not, you’re not one of us either. So was like real, like, I, I mean, I didn’t experience it as an identity crisis. And I think for a lot of people who don’t go through this, that’s the only way that they have to understand it.

Right? Like I get all the time, life must have been so hard growing up and, and I mean, Yeah, there were challenges, but life was normal because it’s, it’s all I knew. So, I’m hearing you say, I love it because it really speaks to my experience. And I hardly ever hear from someone saying something similar.

And I’m wondering at what point then does it become, does it start to become, well, let me ask it this way. Was there always this sense of, I have multiple identities, I live in multiple worlds and I just adapt based on the context? Or was that, was there sort of a development within your own, an evolution with your own thinking, where you realized, you know, this is, this is a conscious choice and I belong whether people, whether people want me or not?

Buchdahl:

I had to, the Koreanness is something I could never escape. And I don’t mean that just in that I wear it on my face, although that’s obvious. And so, the external world perceives me as an Asian woman, but I mean, that it was my first language. I have an immigrant Korean mother who was like, you know, my hero and the biggest force in my life. I mean, so the Koreanness was just like in me in a way, whereas the Jewishness, I had to claim differently, and I had to assert it in a different way because it wasn’t on my face and it wasn’t in my name. And given the fact that I had a non-Jewish mother, and I had a father who was Jewish, but I would say like a lot of typical cultural reform Jews, not particularly knowledgeable in Judaism.

And so, what that meant was I always felt a little bit like I was bringing the Jewishness into my house. You know, my father, wasn’t the one really running the Jewishness in the house. And so, I would come back from Hebrew school and say, we have to light Shabbat candles because I want to, I want a gold star next to my name at Sunday school. I mean, this is the kind of kid I was and this and my parents to their credit were like, okay, we’ll light candles, but it wasn’t that, that was like a natural part of our home. And so, while I was constantly kind of you know, leading my sister in prayers at night, because I was like, Jewish kids are supposed to say these prayers at night and we’re going to do that, I felt there was always a part of me for a long time, felt like I was faking it because I didn’t feel like it was just organically in my family.

And so, when I got older and people challenged my authenticity, I had a couple of responses. One was sort of like, I retreated into myself and said, you’re right. Like, I’m kind of a fraud and a sham, and I don’t, I, it felt like a coat that I would wear, but I could take off. And there was also a part of me that’s like, wait a minute. Who are you to tell me that I’m not a Jew? I’ve been a Jew my whole life and maybe, I don’t know quite as much as you do, and I don’t go to a Jewish day school or all those things that made me feel inferior.

But I, I had Jewish memory and I knew that it was a part of who I was, and I felt this deep connection to the larger mission of the Jewish people. So ultimately, I ended up having a conversion ceremony at 21, which I had to frame as a reaffirmation cause I didn’t want it to say that it was negating the 21 years of my life before that as a Jew. But I did want to actually assert a kind of claiming of it in a way that that came after a lot of years of angsting. 

I will say that a kind of a key pivotal moment in my life was after lots of people in college telling me it wasn’t a real Jew, I don’t know if you know, but in traditional Jewish law, your Jewishness is traced through your mother’s line. So, with a non-Jewish mother without a conversion, I was not considered Jewish under Jewish law, traditional Jewish law. And so, I had had a lot of fun people sort of saying you’re not really Jewish. And I had a lot of my own internal questions about it. And then I went to Israel and I was, I had a very painful, like episode of like lots of rejection. It’s hard to explain. It’s not worth getting into, but the point is, I remember calling my mother after all of this at one point while I was in Israel.

And I said, that’s it. I don’t want to be a Jew anymore. Like I don’t, I don’t have a Korean face. I don’t have a Korean — I mean, I don’t have a Jewish name. I don’t have a Jewish face. I could just stop being Jewish right now. Yeah. And my Buddhist mother, just responds, well, is that really possible? And it wasn’t until I got to the point of absolute rejection, that, and her question, that I realized, Oh, no, actually this is in me in the same way that I could no longer stop being a Korean woman or Angela or, you know, any of that.

And so, and that was when I actually came to some resolution around it, but it was painful. And then I’ve had friends say things to be like, Angela, you just look Jewish to me now, which I don’t even know exactly what that means. I think they meant it as a compliment, but I think it also meant to them that I didn’t look Korean to them anymore. And so, I, you know, it’s that sense that people kind of feel like, well, the more Jewish you become, the less Korean you are or vice versa. And I never saw it that way. My Koreanness informs who I am as a Jew every day. But I do recognize that’s still the way people think about identities. The complexity is hard.

Singh:

The complexity is always hard. And I mean, I’m listening to you, and part of what I’m hearing is, here is a woman, a girl who had a particular racial identity externally right? You, you said people see you on the street and they read you as Korean or Asian American, at least. And so, you’re already in a marginalized group as an immigrant here in the States. And then you make this choice, right? You didn’t, you didn’t have to. And you made this choice to not only join one of the most marginalized groups that is a religious community, but also one that’s highly racialized. But, but also to do it in, in, in a context where you felt like you were an outsider.

And so that’s, that’s such an interesting, like to hear you walk through that process in your own mind, is so interesting to me because, because it’s a, it’s a reminder that, you know, in a very similar way, like I’m, I’m a racialized being as someone with brown skin in this country, I choose to wear a turban. Right? And that’s, and that’s an expression of my identity, but it’s a voluntary one. And so again, I hardly meet people who have voluntary expressions of identity that are then racialized and get them in more trouble.

And so, I guess my, my question to you then is what made you move into that choice? Like I’m hearing you talk about authenticity and really believing in something. But I guess the other way of asking that question is, what do you draw personally from the Jewish tradition that, that really speaks to you and enriches your life?

Buchdahl:

I mean everything about it, honestly, it’s, it was, I mean, thank God it spoke to me so deeply because otherwise I don’t know how I would have stayed in it. And you know, the interesting thing is, my first trip to Israel was sort of the inspiration for me to want to be a rabbi. And I remember coming home and telling my parents and my mother, who always told me, Angela, you can do whatever you want in the world, and was always supportive of whatever I wanted to do, when she heard that she, she literally started to cry and she was like, why that? Like, why would you want to put yourself in a position when you can do anything in the world to like, as a Korean woman with a non-Jewish mother, like why do you want to put yourself in a position of such rejection?

And she knew the kind of rejection I experienced in the community. She knew the racism slash marginalization she felt as a Korean immigrant woman in the community. And, and she also worried that I would never get a job. She was like, who’s going to hire you? Like she only knew male rabbis. I mean, this was still the, you know, the eighties and the world was really different in the Jewish community then. And so, she, they were, you know, they’ve come a long come around to being very supportive. And I’m going to fast forward and just tell everyone if people don’t know that I now run the largest synagogue in New York, so someone hired me.

But I think that part of this is that Judaism just spoke to my soul. I loved the fact that it was a religion of action and deed and not just a sense of faith. I loved that it was all about questioning and debating. I loved that it didn’t believe that it was the sole truth, but that it had a beautiful truth for the world.

It did not conflict with the Buddhist sort of sensibility that I also inherited from my mother. I, I felt like they could live together peacefully and in ways that complemented each other. I love the, the ritual and tradition. I love the color, taste of the holidays, like it just was, it was it was the way that I wanted to make meaning of my time in the world and the way I wanted to make meaning of my purpose in the world.

And so even when there were moments when I wanted to no longer be a Jew, I could not actually think of anything I wanted to do with my life besides being a rabbi, which is complicated because, you know, even when I was like, I don’t want to be Jewish anymore, I still want it to be a rabbi. I still wanted to spend my life thinking about big Jewish ideas and studying Jewish texts and being a teacher of them. I couldn’t think of anything better to do. So, I, I, maybe it’s a lack of creativity, but that’s why I stuck it out when it was hard.

Singh:

That’s great. That’s, that’s really helpful. And I, and I’d love to, to move this conversation into, into some of the things that we’ve been seeing you talk about recently. And, and for those of you who haven’t heard Rabbi Buchdahl had had a sermon recently that went viral, where she talks about –

Buchdahl:

Viral for the Jewish world, I think, I don’t know that it’s, it’s, wasn’t getting like views, like, you know, cats with cucumbers on your hun — on, on, I dunno, those get millions of views.

Singh:

Yeah, but I think the thesis was, and I’ll read it back from, from the YouTube page and I’ll post the link here as well, your thesis was, I’m suggesting that it is time to stop thinking of Jewish peoplehood as a race. Instead, think of Jewish peoplehood as a family. I’d love to hear you expand on that and tell us what you mean by this idea and why it matters so much to you.

Buchdahl:

Well, so I don’t think this is new news to anybody in this group, especially if you are part of this anti-racism conversation, but race is not only a social construct, but it is generally speaking, a construct that has been created by people who want to marginalize one of the races. And so, to categorize people in this way, if you haven’t read Isabelle Wilkerson’s book on caste, she explains it better than anyone I’ve ever seen.

But the point is, I’ve known this about race for a really long time related to Judaism. The first time that we are described as something akin to a race is by Pharaoh in Egypt, in which he’s like, they’re multiplying, like beyond our capacity, they’re, you know, I think there are echoes of Jews will not replace us, that even the Pharaoh said back in the Bible.

So, seeing us as a race was something that was framed by our enemies. Of course, this came many, many times through Jewish history as well, from Spanish inquisition where we were told, convert or die, and many Jews converted, and guess what they said, you know what, even though you converted, you have polluted blood. You’re still Jewish in there. We know it. And that’s like a racialized identity piece. It’s, it’s not about a religion. It’s about viewing Judaism as a race, again, used by our enemies. And then of course it was used to the most devastating end, as people know, in the Holocaust when Nazi Germany wanted to frame Jewishness as a racial identity that had particular characteristics and was about bloodlines and was immutable. And, and that of course led to the murder of 6 million Jews. And so why we would want to see ourselves as a race is beyond me. It really is only been used to marginalize, oppress and commit genocide against our people. So, there’s that piece.

Secondly, it’s an exclusive kind of identity. If it’s a racial identity, if it’s a genetic identity only, then anyone who wants to join us, it’s like a club you can only be born into and it’s exclusive, and that’s not actually what our tradition has ever been. I know that when I, in response to my sermon, some of my congregants responded, but I took the 23 and Me DNA test and I’m 99% Ashkenazi Jewish, so it’s a real thing. And I said, You’re absolutely right. You’re 99% Ashkenazi Jewish, which is one form of many Jewish identities out there. Let’s talk about Jews who come from Iraq or Iran in some of the oldest Jewish communities. They’re not going to have the same bloodline, but they’re authentically Jewish too.

And once we also start to pin our identity on some kinds and of racial bloodline then also it basically decides your authenticity gets to be measured by some sort of percentage of a DNA that is really not what Jewish identity is all about. And so, what, so even if you want to say, Ashkenazi Jewish is the true Judaism, which I’m not willing to say at all, but let’s say it was, so then that means that someone who is 50% is, is not a real Jew? Like this is not a kind of line of thinking that’s healthy for the Jewish community in any way, or frankly, any Jewish, any community. And I like to reframe the idea.

So, people say, well, then if it’s not about a culture or a race, then what, what is Jewish peoplehood all about? Because we call ourselves not just a faith community, but a peoplehood. And I’d like the framing of it as family, because you can certainly become part of family through blood. I don’t want to take that away. That’s powerful and important. Heredity can be one way you can become a part of the Jewish people, but you can also become family through adoption, and you can become family through choice. And if you think about marriage, in which you can become the closest of family who absolutely you share no blood with but, but you do that through covenant. The idea that once you enter into a covenant with someone, that makes you family stronger than blood. And the Jewish model for covenant with God is the way that we became God, you know, people in God’s eyes.

So, I, I like the idea that we can come back to this idea that any Jew who says, I’m bound by that covenant, you get to be part of the family. And then that’s the way we should think about what Jewish peoplehood consists of, is the sense of covenant and family as opposed to an immutable racial line.

Singh:

Great. I appreciate that. And so, and so what you’re helping us think about here, Rabbi, is identity but also belonging. And, and we talk a lot in this country right now about diversity and inclusion and that, and just, just to be very clear, the distinction there, right? These are two separate things.

Diversity is the collection of identities. It’s just who we are. And then that’s sort of what you’ve been talking us through. But now you’re talking us through inclusion, which is the set of conditions that we create. There’s nothing inherent, there’s nothing natural. It’s a choice that we make about what kind of environment or culture we want to set up. And so, what you’re helping us think about here is what would it look like to reimagine a culture of inclusion, one that’s less defined on the basis of hierarchies whether we mean to or not, but one that is very intentional about bringing in this, this sort of vision of connectedness on the basis of whatever we decide, where we’re a part of.

I remember listening to Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander at Riverside Church a few years ago. And Angela Davis was talking about Blackness as a familyhood. It’s just, you’re just what you’re saying is reminding me, on the basis of a shared memory and a shared experience, and she was talking about how anti-Black racism and slavery in particular really create a connection among people of diverse backgrounds who would have never known one another, but they feel one another on the basis. And it just, it just reminded me of what you’re saying here, that it’s, it’s a much more expansive, much more open form of, and one that’s based on equal playing field. Right? So, I really, I really appreciate that.

Buchdahl:

Yeah.

Singh:

I wonder, I want to ask you to, to take us a little further. I know you’re, you’re digging into some uncomfortable personal experiences and I really appreciate you doing that. Can I, before I move on, though, can I ask you, does that feel burdensome to you? Does it get exhausting to constantly be the Jew of color who is talking about being a Jew of color?

Buchdahl:

It really kind of depends on the way the conversation is done. So, I’ll just say this one doesn’t feel that way. In part, because of the way you’re asking the questions and the, kind of the intention of this and the space that I’m in right now. I would say that for a lot of my life, it felt like a burden and it was exhausting. And I would alternate between being angry that I had to prove myself all the time. Tired of it, you know, insecure. Like there were, there were just a lot of different things that I went through feeling.

And I think when I became a rabbi, there was a certain kind of, you know, what’s the word I’m looking for? A tokenization slash exotification of, Ooh, Asian rabbi. And so, I would get asked to sit on a lot of panels or to be the face of Jews of color in a way that I had a very complicated relationship with. On the one hand, I really didn’t want to be the poster child, and I resented it and I felt a little bit objectified and used. On the other hand, every time, I was willing to put myself out there, I would hear from people who said you’ve changed, you know, my adopted child’s relationship with Judaism, or I’ve never seen this before and you’re changing my mind, or just my very presence was shifting and causing questions that I knew needed to happen. So, I felt like it was my responsibility.

I think now that I feel much more comfortable with where I am, and the fact is it still can make me very emotional when I think about it. I, as I gave my sermon, I surprised myself that I had to hold back tears at the end of my sermon. Speaking about this personally when I kind of feel like, you know, on the one hand you could say, I’ve arrived, I’ve got a very powerful position in the Jewish community. But those scars run deep. And, and so it clearly is still something that I feel when I talk about it, but it doesn’t hurt in the same way usually when I talk about it, now. It generally speaking is something that I’m happy to kind of be a part of.

And I now feel like I do it on behalf of many, many more other Jews of color who are much, who feel much more marginalized in the community than I do. And I feel like now I’m in a position, I’ve got to do my part so that it doesn’t feel the same way for them as it did for me.

Singh:

I appreciate that. I remember in your sermon, actually, you mentioned, I think it was 12 to 15% of Jews in America…

Buchdahl:

Are Jews of color. That’s a million Jews of color. But what I did say in my sermon, if people hadn’t seen it, is that you don’t see them in the traditional Jewish communities almost at all. And so, a lot of my community, like what are you talking about? There’s no way that’s the right number. It’s just because they, if, when people have stepped into these communities, if they’re willing to do it at all, they usually have experiences like mine were and they don’t come back.

Singh:

Right. Yeah. And I mean, when, when you’re, re-imagining now that the relationship there from one of race to one of familyhood, then all of a sudden those, those Jews of color, I think that’s what one in every seven, I think is what you said in your on your sermon. Yeah. So, one in every seven Jews with a new relationship to the community now could have a sense of belonging as opposed to that sort of exclusion and marginalization that you felt growing up. So, yeah, that’s, that’s really powerful.

I want to ask you one more question before, before I move into Q & A, but it’s, it’s around, it’s around what you do and how you do it. It’s, it’s, it’s another personal question. It’s, it’s one where I’m trying to tap into your wisdom and your experiences, you know, especially in a moment where we’re seeing a surge in anti-Asian racism, anti-Semitism, the hate violence, you know, it’s, it’s not just speech, it’s violence. You know these things. You live these things. You experience these things. What, what, what guides you in dealing with these kinds of issues? Where do you find wisdom and what advice do you have for all of us?

Buchdahl:

So, well, I’ll say that, like I come from a, almost a theological position, I guess. That sounds very highfalutin, but I come from a place where my general sense is that I think most people are good and want to do good in the world. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think that almost all of us harbor racist views, I’m going to put myself in that category too. We have a lot of things to work on. But I generally, I have faith in human beings that when we learn things and when we hear stories and we are opened up and have the possibility to empathize in a way, I really do have faith that most human beings are going to be willing to change out of it.

And so, when I gave the sermon than I gave I did it out of a place of love and out of a place of, I know you’re going to do the right thing now, now that you’ve heard this. And what it means is, the difference between that is, I did not give a sermon in which I called everyone racists or practicing in white supremacy, even though in some ways in different words, I did say that, and I actually, I could say that, but those words and those labels shut people down. It basically, I feel like it sort of often disrespects where people can come from and it does, it’s not pastoral in any way.

So, I operate like a rabbi and I really think that that this is not about letting people off the hook, but it’s about, how do you actually move people forward? And I have seen that when people often decide and say, well, you’re racist or that’s white privilege or whatever is probably justifiable in terms of the language.

I find that most people, maybe not on a college campus, because it’s a different environment, but most people certainly in the community I’m in or in age demographics above 25 are going to say, don’t say that to me and they, and they won’t listen. So, what I found powerful is that is that, you know, I have a woman who is a Trump supporter in my community, who I was certain was not going to like my sermon. And she wrote me the most glowing email after my sermon. I was shocked. And it’s not that I didn’t give her credit. She’s not a bad human being. I just, you know, we have very, very different politics. We’ll put it that way.

And I think that what that proved to me is that like, I didn’t need to, I didn’t need to preach to the converted. Those guys were ready to be with me. I wanted to preach exactly to her. I wanted to change hearts and minds and she was able to hear this because it came from a place of authenticity and personal story and, and she has a heart. And I know she does. So, I guess that’s my general outlook. I think that there, there is a moment, there is a place for anger. And I’ve definitely had it. And there are times I feel very angry. But I think that moving people forward, we’re going to do that more and better with some love and some benefit of the doubt and some radical empathy.