Barbara Jean Ostfeld is the first woman ordained as a cantor. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, to Dr. Adrian Ostfeld, an epidemiologist, and Ruth Vogel Ostfeld, an occupational therapist, Barbara was musical from very early childhood and knew from the age of 8 that she wanted to be a cantor. Ostfeld’s decision to apply to the sacred music undergraduate program at HUC-JIR was motivated by her feminism, her attachment to the Reform Movement and its prophetic tradition, as well as by her love of music. When she applied to the School of Sacred Music of the HUC-JIR, she was unaware that no woman had previously applied. She was ordained in 1975, at age 22.
Ostfeld served congregations in Clifton, New Jersey and in Great Neck, Rochester, and Buffalo, New York. In these synagogues, she fulfilled the full range of cantorial responsibilities, teaching Hebrew and various Judaic subjects, leading worship, life cycle officiation, directing choirs and engaging in social action projects.
Early on her talents were recognized by the Reform cantors’ professional organization, the American Conference of Cantors (ACC). She served the ACC as Secretary (1978–80), as Vice President (1980–82) and, for several terms, as a member of its board of directors.
Ostfeld received an honorary doctorate in music from HUC-JIR in 2000. In 2002, she retired from pulpit life and began a ten-year term as the ACC’s director of placement. In this role, Ostfeld worked with cantors, rabbis and lay leaders across the globe.
She is the author of a chapter in Rabbi Elyse Goldstein’s New Jewish Feminism (Jewish Lights Publishing) and her essays have appeared in The Reform Jewish Quarterly, Lilith Magazine and the URJ’s Ten Minutes of Torah. Ostfeld is also the author of a memoir, Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim (Erva Press, 2019). In December of the same year, Ostfeld won the Debbie Friedman Award, the URJ’s highest musical honor.
Ostfeld lives in Buffalo, New York, has two daughters and is married to Todd M. Joseph, a retired law partner of Hodgson Russ LLP.
Source: Correspondence with Barbara Ostfeld, (July 12, 2020).
Photo courtesy of Barbara Ostfeld.