Barbara J. Ostfeld might best be described as a quiet trailblazer.
The Amherst resident dreamed as a child of standing at the bimah and leading a congregation in sacred song.
But she never imagined being Judaism’s first-ever female cantor.
“I wasn’t interested to be the first woman; I just wanted to be a cantor,” Ostfeld recounted in a recent interview.
More than 37 years later, Buffalo’s Jewish community will come together to recognize Ostfeld’s unique place in Jewish history.
Temple Beth Zion tonight will host a musical tribute in honor of Ostfeld, former cantor at Temple Beth Am in Amherst and a longtime resident of Western New York.
“She’s a pioneer,” said Penny Myers, cantorial intern at Temple Beth Zion. “It’s incredible that she’s been a part of our community as long as she has. As her home synagogue, we needed to do something to honor her.”
Cantor Benjamin Z. Maissner of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple and Cantor David Rosen of Beth Radom Congregation in Toronto will participate in the special worship service, which begins at 6 p.m. in Temple Beth Zion’s main sanctuary, 805 Delaware Ave.
The two cantors will present a sermon in song featuring Hebrew and Yiddish pieces.
Ostfeld, 59, explained her distinction as first female cantor as an accident more than anything else.
“It was simply that no woman had sought that training before,” she said.
Within Judaism’s Reform Movement, there was no prohibition against women serving in leadership positions.
When Ostfeld entered Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Sacred Music, Sally Preisand was in her second year of rabbinical school and already had garnered plenty of media attention in her quest to become the first woman ordained as a rabbi in the United States.
With little fanfare, Ostfeld enrolled in the cantorate program.
Just a year later, two more women enrolled to become cantors. Ostfeld was invested in 1975.
Today, more than half of the 450 cantors associated with the American Conference of Cantors, a professional organization, are women.
Ostfeld served 12 years as cantor of Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, Nassau County, before moving to Western New York in 1988. She was cantor for a Rochester congregation prior to joining the staff of Temple Beth Am in 1990.
Ostfeld said she didn’t encounter any resistance, at least not in terms of hiring. But because there were no female models for her, “I did have to decide how to make my way in terms of demeanor and attire and pulpit style,” she said. “I think this is true of so many women who invaded what was previously all-male territory.”
She had a tendency to stifle her natural personality, trying to come across as more stern than nurturing. And she also admitted at times to putting work before family, because of perceived pressure to do so.
But she ultimately was able to come to a comfortable balance after enough years as a cantor, she said.
In 2002, she was appointed placement director of the American Conference of Cantors. Even though the organization is based in Chicago, Ostfeld was able to remain in Western New York, and she has filled in as cantor at Temple Beth Zion and other congregations as needed.
This August, she retired from the American Conference of Cantors, which celebrated Ostfeld’s tenure at its annual convention in June.
Ostfeld will continue to be active as a pulpit cantor when asked, she said.
She recalled the joy of performing solos as a child in the synagogue.
“Nothing felt so wonderful as to be able to sing the words of prayer,” she said.
Ostfeld still enjoys that same spiritual uplift each time she takes to the bimah, a prime vantage point for a congregation joining together in song.
“When people sing,” she said, “the words of the liturgy come to life.”