COVID Silences Jewish Choirs: Reform’s First Female Cantor

Cantor Barbara Ostfeld


Jewish choirs have gone silent in the wake of the COVID, and Reform Judaism’s first ordained female cantor warns the music won’t come back soon.

Cantor Barbara Ostfeld told a virtual audience at Hamilton’s Temple Anshe Sholom recently that choirs will have to get past the fact that they are fertile fields for spreading the virus.

“We will have to evolve or we will go the way of the dinosaurs,” Ostfield said in a presentation live-streamed from her home in Buffalo, N.Y. “I wish I knew what was going to happen, but I know it will happen.

“We will figure it out,” she added. “If we can put people on the space station, then we can figure out how we can sing together safely.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States has warned that even social distancing measures may not be enough to outdo the effects of droplets emitted by some singers and inhaled by their choir mates.

Until the COVID puzzle is solved, Ostfeld said the Jewish world has lost a critical part of its humanity.

“This can’t be the end of communal singing, it’s too important a part of the human experience,” she said.

Singing in groups, Ostfeld said in an e-mail exchange after her presentation, brings people together in ways a solo voice, no matter how beautiful, simply can’t.

What we lose when we can’t gather for ritual purposes is the communal bolstering that we haven’t had to think about until this pandemic,” she added.

Finding a way to bring the music back is occupying Jewish leaders worried about how they will celebrate the High Holy Days in September.

“There are all kinds of think tanks grappling with this problem right now. There are large umbrella-group conversations, like the ones being conducted jointly by the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue,” she said. “There are also many ad hoc conversations between and among cantors and rabbis, and religious educators, communal and congregational leaders.”

Ostfeld has a lifetime of experience studying the impact of music on Jewish life – experience she put in a book last year titled Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim.

It chronicles her experience as an anxious and depressed 10-year-old lone Jew in a YMCA camp; her discovery that singing can make her world a better place; and her decision to train for a male-dominated profession.

In Ostfeld’s description, “readers will be right there in the moment with me, from early childhood to age 65, anxious at school, or feeling like an imposter, or shoe shopping with my inner therapist.”

She hopes to follow that up with a children’s book about “an awkward, overweight little girl who discovers her singing voice and puts it to use in a synagogue setting. It’s a happy, colourful story … about singing as a super-power.”

Cantor Barbara Ostfeld
Cantor Barbara Ostfeld

There was a long history of women singing in Liberal synagogues but in 1975, Ostfeld became Reform Judaism’s first female cantor ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

The Conservative movement ordained its first female cantor in 1987 and the Reconstructionist denomination in 2002. To date, there are no ordained female cantors in the Orthodox movement.