An AVODAH Math Challenge from Rabbi/Cantor Angela Buchdahl (or rather, her kids)

Published Mar 5, 2013
By Rabbi/Cantor Angela Buchdahl


My kids love math. They posed the following challenge:

If you had a chess board and started on the first square with one penny, and then doubled it on each square, so the next square would be 2 cents, then the next would be 4 cents and the next 8 cents, you get the picture–would you choose to take the final dollar figure when you got to last square of the chess board, or a billion dollars?  I quickly did some calculations in my head, by doubling from a penny, and by the tenth square, I was only at $5.12, so I pretty confidently chose the billion dollars.  It turns out that, not even halfway around the board, and by 36 squares, we’re over a billion dollars, by the end of the 64 squares, you have so many trillions the calculator fritzes out.

Now you know why I didn’t go into finance.  But what I couldn’t wrap my head around is how what seemed like small change accumulated exponentially, just by doubling from just one little penny!  It made me think differently about the teaching from the Talmud Sanhedrin: “Save a life and you save the world.”  I had always understood that verse to convey Judaism’s valuing of each and every life. And Judaism does value every single life.  But now think of this Jewish teaching in the context of my boys’ math problem:  If one person is saved, maybe a mother, with two children, and those children are able to break out of a cycle of poverty and despair, that is doubled in the next generation with each child bringing up two more lives that are out of the cycle of poverty, then in this scenario, by the time we hit 36 generations—double chai—we are literally at a billion, and an entire world is saved.  Incredible to think about, isn’t it?

I remember being struck by the power of the exponential impact over generations, when I saw the movie about the Bielsky brothers, the partisans who saved over 900 people from the Holocaust by hiding out in the forests of Poland.  At the end of the movie it said, that the descendants of those 900 people saved by those brothers, only two to three generations after the Holocaust, now numbered in the tens of thousands.  I can’t even fathom the numbers of 6 million, it is beyond comprehension.  But our tradition would say, focus on every single life saved– each one is an entire world.

This is what each AVODAH fellow is doing; they are saving worlds, I learned some of their stories when I invited them to Central Synagogue last year and asked them to talk about their work. AVODAH corps member Anna, was a college advisor at Manhattan Comprehensive Night & Day High School, a non-traditional high school for adult students who take classes at day or night while juggling responsibilities of full-time work or children.  She told me about a student who spent most of her life in group homes, after being kicked out of her mother’s house.  She had a horrible attendance problem and graduating high school did not seem likely.  With Anna’s mentorship she graduated in January, and later came to Anna’s desk in tears with an acceptance to CUNY community college.

Making an impact on some of our most vulnerable populations is not easy or glamorous work. And these corps members are sustaining themselves in this effort by drawing most deeply from the wellsprings of our tradition, rooting themselves in the wisdom and the rituals of our tradition, within a vibrant Jewish community.  Can you imagine a world in which every young Jewish adult gave a year of service, like these members?  Not only would it change the lives of people in our poorest communities, but it would change us–our entire Jewish community.

To my 3 children, Gabriel, Eli and Rose, there is no higher value in our Jewish tradition than saving a life. I would be incredibly proud if one day, you too become corps members of AVODAH.

You can do the math.

Angela Buchdahl was invested as a cantor in 1999 and also ordained as a rabbi in 2001 from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York where she was a Wexner Graduate fellow.  Born in Korea to a Jewish American father and a Korean Buddhist mother, Cantor Buchdahl is the first Asian American to be ordained as cantor or rabbi in North America.  Prior to her appointment as cantor at Central Synagogue, Cantor Buchdahl served as associate rabbi/cantor at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y.
Cantor Buchdahl has been actively involved in Just Congregations, the Reform Movement’s Congregation Based Community Organizing effort at Central and on a national level.  Cantor Buchdahl has been featured in articles in Reform Judaism, Shema Journal of Jewish Ideas, Newsweek’s 2013 list of “America’s 50 Most Influential Rabbis” and the PBS documentary 18 Voices Sing Kol Nidrei.  She serves on the Board of Auburn Theological Seminary and AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. Cantor Buchdahl was a 2012 AVODAH Partner in Justice. 

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