First Reform woman cantor looks back on groundbreaking career

First Reform woman cantor looks back on groundbreaking career

Cantor Barbara Jean Ostfeld was the first Reform woman cantor.
Cantor Barbara Jean Ostfeld was the first Reform woman cantor.

When she was a child, Barbara Jean Ostfeld said she was bullied for her weight and bookishness. It wasn’t until she grew up that she found her voice, literally and figuratively.

In 1975 she became the first woman invested as a cantor, according to the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

“I always wanted to be a cantor from the age of 8, but I didn’t know I was first in line until I was told by the registrar,” said Ostfeld of her decision to apply for admission to HUC-JIR’s school, now known as the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.

She said her career was inspired by her involvement in her family’s Reform synagogue, Oak Park Temple B’nai Abraham Zion in Illinois, where she sang in the children’s choir and was captivated by the congregation’s commitment to tikkun olam.

“I particularly liked hearing our rabbi talk about civil rights,” she told NJJN in a telephone interview. “I wanted to do something like that when I grew up and I knew I could sing so it made sense to me.”

Ostfeld will talk about her groundbreaking career in the cantorate and her autobiographical book, “Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim” (Erva Press, 2019), on Jan. 26 at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick.

She said the title of her book is a combination of a childhood nickname given to her — “because I was a pretty persnickety little girl” — and a nod to James Thurber’s 1942 short story, “The Catbird Seat,” because she said she now feels like she’s sitting in the catbird seat. “I’ve found a much happier vantage point as an adult,” she said.

Becoming a cantor was never an issue for Ostfeld’s liberal family, and she said her male classmates were accepting of her, but she experienced some pushback from faculty and administrators. 

“Initially I was asked why I didn’t have a boyfriend or why I needed to come to Hebrew Union College to find a boyfriend or husband and other insulting questions,” said Ostfeld. “Fortunately, those questions have largely disappeared.”

Being thrust into an unintentional “fascinating journey” of being the lone female in a male-dominated profession, Ostfeld said she confronted issues her colleagues never faced, such as how she should dress or comport herself off the bima and how to balance her career with relationships and parenting responsibilities. Overall, “how much dignity you have to have and at what expense,” she said.

Male congregants “would overstep boundaries all the time,” she said, and try to greet her with a kiss, forcing her to develop a “strong-armed” handshake that made it clear the show of affection was unwelcome.

And then, of course, there was the problem of women cantors being paid less than their male counterparts for the same work.

“There is much more awareness about the pay issue, and many Jewish institutions are now somewhat embarrassed when it becomes known they pay women less because they know it’s not right and just,” said Ostfeld. “It is really a work in progress because there is still that ancient notion that if a woman is married she is not the primary breadwinner when, of course, she is a primary breadwinner in her family.”

Ostfeld said she had little trouble landing a job when she graduated in the mid-1970s because many synagogues thought hiring a female cantor “was cutting-edge and avant garde.”

She served at New York congregations in Great Neck, Rochester, and Buffalo, and in Clifton before becoming director of placement at the American Conference of Cantors, the Reform movement’s professional cantorial organization on whose board she also served.

A resident of Buffalo, Ostfeld is now retired. She is married to Todd Joseph, a retired lawyer, and has two daughters and five grandchildren.

As Ostfeld reflects back on her journey from being an anxious child with low self-esteem to where she is today, she said she feels content.

“With the help of psychotherapy, I found my voice and strength and gained perspective,” Ostfeld said. 

She has watched more women enter her profession, and in her opinion, the infusion has raised the standard of professionalism in the both the Conservative and Reform movements through their musical knowledge and commitment to social action.

“There are now more women than men entering cantorial school,” she said. “We are in the majority in liberal circles.

“Nobody blinks twice now when they see a woman cantor.”

If you go

What: Keepers of Jewish Excellence speaker series
Who: Cantor Barbara Jean Ostfeld
Where: Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, New Brunswick
When: Sunday, Jan. 26, 10:30 a.m.
Cost: $18; $15, members; $10, seniors
Information: 732-545-6484 or

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