Young Blood On East Side Pulpits


One floated a trial balloon earlier this year: that the Conservative movement consider accepting converts, then teaching them, turning the usual chronology on its head. A second said he’d like to bring “literature, music and the visual arts,” along with worship and study, into the life of his synagogue. And a third, by the very nature of her background — Korean and Jewish — is breaking boundaries.

Welcome to a new generation of East Side rabbis, who are offering young blood and some new ideas to what has usually been thought of as a religiously staid part of town. The three liberal rabbis — Elliot Cosgrove at Park Avenue Synagogue (Conservative), Joshua Davidson at Temple Emanu-El (Reform) and the just-minted Angela Warnick Buchdahl at Central Synagogue (Reform) — are now at the helm of three of the city’s most prestigious pulpits.

“What we’re witnessing is a very healthy generational shift — healthy communities go through generational shifts,” says Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. “The key to generational shifts isn’t simply a rejection of the past, but new blood [that] innovates and preserves.

“That is exactly the strength of these three rabbis,” Rabbi Kula continued. “All three of them innovate with a great respect for the past.”

Rabbi Buchdahl, who is currently the cantor at Central Synagogue, was tapped last week to succeed Rabbi Peter Rubinstein as spiritual leader.

Pending approval of the board’s recommendation at a January membership meeting, she will assume the pulpit on July 1, becoming the first woman to lead the 2,100-family Reform congregation in its 174-year history.

“She believes music is an integral part of how she leads a worship experience,” said David B. Edelson, congregation president.

“I am honored by the Board’s recommendation to the congregation for its approval next month,” Rabbi Buchdahl said in an e-mail statement. But, she added, “I am wholly focused on continuing to serve our community as senior cantor at this time.”

At 41, Rabbi Buchdahl is a quarter-century younger than Rabbi Rubinstein, 70. Rabbi Davidson, 45, who was installed last Shabbat, takes over from Rabbi David Posner, who retired at age 65. Rabbi Cosgrove, 41, who assumed the Park Avenue Synagogue pulpit in 2008 and is seen to have brought a new intellectual vigor and spirit of inquiry to the congregation, replaced the patrician Rabbi David Lincoln, who retired at 70.

While serving as Central Synagogue’s senior cantor, Rabbi Buchdahl has also carried out rabbinic duties. She will continue to sing during some services, and the congregation will search for a new senior cantor.

“This is one of the most prominent congregations in the world, and Rabbi Cantor Angela Buchdahl is one of the most remarkable and inspiring religious leaders in our world,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Rabbi Jacobs called Rabbi Buchdahl — who was invested as a cantor and ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College — the Reform movement’s most prominent leader who serves in both positions. Rabbis Jacobs and Buchdahl will lead Shabbat service at the movement’s biennial meeting in San Diego, which began on Dec. 11.

Rabbi Buchdahl has been featured multiple times in the Newsweek/Daily Beast annual list of 50 Most Influential American Rabbis. Born in South Korea to an American-Jewish father and Korean-Buddhist mother, she grew up in the Reform movement, spending her summers at its camps.

This dual identity is one of the strengths she will bring to the pulpit, Rabbi Jacobs said.

“Her multiple backgrounds can enhance our Jewish life in this contemporary world that we live in,” he said.

JTA contributed to this report.