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September 23, 2014 / 28 Elul, 5774
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Did She or Didn’t She?

Why should someone who did convert in an Orthodox ceremony be sending out all the signals that they didn't?

Cantor Angela Warnick Buchdahl in performance. Now we're told she did undergo a Jewish conversion, possibly Orthodox, but it's being kept quiet.

Cantor Angela Warnick Buchdahl in performance. Now we're told she did undergo a Jewish conversion, possibly Orthodox, but it's being kept quiet.
Photo Credit: Facebook

Over the past two days, while the army was shooting into the crowds in Egypt and half of Beirut was lifted by a huge car bomb, and many other awful things were happening, The Jewish Press readership has been dealing with mostly the question of the possibility that a Reform Rabbi named Angela Buchdahl could have attained her high position without the benefit of a Jewish conversion.

It started with an article in The Forward (Angela Buchdahl, First Asian-American Rabbi, Vies for Role at Central Synagogue), that basically suggested Buchdahl was not Jewish according to Jewish law:

But she also engaged Judaism at a time when the Reform movement itself was undergoing dramatic change. Eleven years after Buchdahl’s birth, in a move still hotly debated in all streams of Judaism, including within Reform Judaism itself, the Reform movement overturned more than 2,000 years of tradition that recognized only those whose mother was Jewish as Jews from birth. Others, including those with just a Jewish father, were required to undergo a process of conversion, though this process varied among Judaism’s different streams.

Starting in 1983, as intermarriage advanced steadily among its members, Reform Judaism conferred a “presumption of Jewish descent” on those with one Jewish parent, whether it was a father or a mother. The one condition to this recognition was that it be established “through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith,” according to the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

In many ways, Buchdahl represents the flowering of this revolution in Judaism, and symbolizes a kind of coming of age of its children.

This was coupled with an article in Hadassah Magazine:

Profile: Angela Buchdahl

Though Buchdahl’s mother did not convert, she wanted her children to find a home in the Jewish community. Her father instilled Jewish pride in his children and gave them a Jewish vocabulary, says Buchdahl, but it was her mother who imparted a sense of spiritual yearning and wonder. Her mother’s Buddhism informs her Judaism, she says, noting that Jewish and Korean cultures overlap in their approach to life, their emphasis on giving back and their drive to succeed and to be educated.

So yours truly, enchanted by the concept of the non-Jewish Rabbi, charged ahead. I still believe all the points I was making were right, namely that the Reform  doctrine of patrilineal descent and the “presumption of Judaism” in the case of a the offspring of a non-Jewish woman married to a Jew were on the money.

Except that it turns out Buchdahl may have converted to Judaism after all.

Thanks, first, to our reader Vicky Glikin of Deerfield, Illinois, who wrote:

It is highly unfortunate that your facts and the very premise for this article are plain wrong. Rabbi/Cantor Buchdahl underwent an Orthodox conversion, a fact that you would have easily discovered had you actually been trying to write an intelligent work of journalism.

So I went looking for the misrepresented conversion, and found the following line in the Times (Defining Judaism, a Rabbi of Many Firsts), hidden among long, familiar paragraphs like this one:

Her first reaction was to think about a formal conversion to Judaism, but a second impulse quickly followed: Why should she convert to prove something, when she had been a Jew her entire life? In traditional Jewish law, a Jew is defined through the mother’s line. But over roughly the last 40 years, the Reform movement in Judaism accepted descent through the father’s line as legitimate for Jewish identification, so if a child has a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother who affiliates as a Jew (the mother need not convert if she is involved in synagogue life), the child does not need to undergo a conversion to become a Jew.

But then, the Times revealed: “Eventually, at 21, she did undergo a conversion ceremony, but she prefers to think of it as a reaffirmation ceremony.”

Another clue was in something David Ellenson, President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, wrote in his letter today (Hebrew Union Pres. Pulls Fast One in Non-Jewish Rabbi Debate):  “you assume an article that was written in another newspaper and upon which your author draws for his piece reveals all the facts about her life. ”

Meaning, Ellenson may have known Buchdahl had converted in an Orthodox ceremony, but to concede this would mean that he agrees that it takes an Orthodox conversion to turn even the child of a Jewish father into a real Jew — as shown by the very poster child of patrilineal descent, the subject of our attention these past two days.

I still find the entire affair more than a little bizarre: why should someone who did convert in an Orthodox ceremony be sending out all the signals that they didn’t and that they’re proud they didn’t. Perhaps we’ll find out in the next chapter of this very strange story.

About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.


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22 Responses to “Did She or Didn’t She?”

  1. יוסף אלכסנדר מנטאלבו says:

    Oh, this is getting interesting.

  2. Dan Silagi says:

    Yes, this is all a great conspiracy, right up there with Roswell, Area 51, the "suicide" of Vince Foster, and that Dick Cheney was the real culprit behind 9/11.

  3. Daniel Bar-Nahum says:

    In an answer to a purposefully misleading headline: she did. Unfortunately for the author, the facts were in the middle of a long paragraph in the Times. Attempting to distract from the conversation by opening with a sentence about the tragic bloodshed Egypt is, perhaps, more reprehensible than your initial article. You brought it up and now it's not worth our time because there are more important things in the world? The fact that The Forward, among others, didn't fact check or present a full portrait is not an excuse for you, and I'm pretty sure Chazal would agree. Mr. Yanover, the game is over. Admit you were wrong, misguided, ill-informed and move on. The author and this website should publicly apologize to Rabbi Buchdahl.

  4. Richard D. Cameron says:

    Probably asking too much Daniel!

  5. Sugi Tabero says:

    Who really cares, what goes in a Reform congregation, we need focus on Orthodox Rabbinate and to start judging them critically.   All to often Rabbis get position and don’t do much to make their communities grow.   Chabad is an example to follow where if the Rabbi doesn’t grew or build his congregation he has none.

  6. Yori Yanover, please turn on your computer at 6 PM and watch and listen to Rabbi Buchdahl for yourself. Be a MENSCH! Judge a person by WHAT THEY DO! The live streaming of Central Synagogue Friday night services runs from 6 PM to 7:30 PM TONIGHT! It is finished 5 MINUTES BEFORE SHABBOS BEGINS! Before 6 PM, the screen is blank. Enjoy! Type the link into your address bar, if clicking on it doesn't connect.
    http://www.centralsynagogue.org/worship/live_streaming

  7. Daniel, if the author has the courage, he will watch and listen, to Rabbi Buchdahl, online, TONIGHT, at 6 PM. If he doesn't apologize to her, not US, after seeing the joy in Rabbi Buchdahl's services, then I will lose all respect for the man. Enjoy HER joy, tonight at 6 PM.
    http://www.centralsynagogue.org/worship/live_streaming

  8. Dan Silagi says:

    My question to all you frummies is, "Why is this important?" Do you think Central Synagogue of Manhattan is going to fire her? Your comments to the effect that she isn't Jewish, and that Reform Jews aren't Jewish either just make all of you look incredibly venal and stupid. Now have a great Shabbot, and don't do anything I wouldn't do.

  9. Dan Silagi says:

    I couldn't agree with you more, Daniel, but I believe there are two chances Yori will apologize: Slim and none.

  10. Michael Epshtein Benveniste says:

    i beg your pardon sir. what is a SHABBOT?

  11. Daniel Shapiro says:

    Dan Silagi in fact… Being he is Frum, he is likely Shomer Shabbat. Being Shomer Shabbat… there is no chance at all that he would be watching ANY television at 6:00pm in August, in Israel, as it is still Shabbat.

  12. Yori Yanover says:

    Joseph Salowitz · Sorry, couldn't, it was the middle of the night in Netanya.

  13. Yori Yanover says:

    Joseph Salowitz – I have no doubt at all that she is the nicest person with the sweetest voice. The debate was not about why she SHOULD NOT be Jewish, rather it is about the fact that SHE SHOULD be Jewish. And it turns out she had a conversion, possibly Orthodox, so the story is now very strange.

  14. Yori Yanover says:

    Dan Silagi · It's important because we must create a clear distinction between the Jewish nation and the Reform movement. A Jewish person should know when they attend a reform event that it is not Jewish.

  15. Dan Silagi says:

    Michael Epshtein Benveniste It's a day of the week. Celebrated in parts of Israel by the real shabbot desecrators, who throw rocks at people driving automobiles.

  16. Batya Spiegelman Medad says:

    The mention of a conversion doesn't say what kind of conversion. I find her statement about her Jewish upbringing even stranger.
    "Her father instilled Jewish pride in his children and gave them a Jewish vocabulary, says Buchdahl, but it was her mother who imparted a sense of spiritual yearning and wonder. Her mother’s Buddhism informs her Judaism, she says, noting that Jewish and Korean cultures overlap in their approach to life, their emphasis on giving back and their drive to succeed and to be educated."

  17. Maybe Yori Yanover should do more research before he publishes an article that could be hurtful or enrage others and leave one guessing.

  18. Seymour Lecker says:

    Some people convert to this that or the other thing just because it is something to do. The conversion is meaning less …. and what follows is meaningless.
    Some people "convert" over and over and over again!

  19. Steve Arnold says:

    Seems like there was a serious failure of research on the writer's part/ As a journalist myself I find it very sloppy not to have confirmed that fundamental point.

  20. Bruce Bevitz says:

    Thr writer took the Rabbi at her word. If she was being devious then it is on her. Time to move on. Who said G-d let me accept that which I cannot change!

  21. Barnaby Yeh says:

    Michael Epshtein Benveniste Eet ees vhat ve celeberate on Feriday night and Satoorday! Eet's Shabbot!

  22. Brian Kent says:

    Michael Epshtein Benveniste Does it mean dinner?

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