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Dr Sidney Block portrait

1990s -

"Until his recent retirement, Sidney R. Block, MD practiced rheumatology in Maine since 1975. He is also a lay cantor for Congregation Beth El, the Reform congregation in Bangor, which he helped found. By 1980, Dr. Block and his wife had two young children. Because there was no synagogue for Reform Jews, they considered home schooling their children for their religious education. However,he had an idea to gather together to observe religious services, celebrate holidays and offer religious education to their children. In 1981, Dr. Block and five other reform Jewish physicians in the community hosted a public meeting. To their surprise, roughly 100 people attended, and 14 families signed on. Thus, Congregation Beth El was born, and a formal religious school was started a few years later. Although he never learned how to read music and has never had a formal voice or music lesson, Dr. Block can hold a tune and remembered how to chant some of the prayers he was taught in Hebrew school in Baltimore as a young boy. By default, he became the congregation’s cantor. He connected with an ordained cantor in Boston who would sing the prayers, record them on cassette tapes and then mail them to Dr. Block. While driving between his home in Bucksport and private practice in Bangor, Dr. Block would spend the half-hour each way playing the prayers over and over again, trying to mimic the cantor. He jokingly refers to himself as a Suzuki-trained cantor; the Suzuki teaching method involves repetition and saturation in a musical environment. Over the years, his repertoire has grown to where he can chant every important prayer necessary for Shabbat, the High Holidays, funerals and other religious events. “I guess I did reasonably well,” says Dr. Block. “At least nobody else wanted my job.” When he came to the parts of recorded prayers that were beyond his vocal capabilities, he customized them by patching together small interludes of his own creation for the parts he was unable to mimic. As a result, some of his prayers took on a unique melody, referred to in Hebrew as Nusach, or the tune used when a cantor recites a prayer. Looking back, Dr. Block believes that establishing the reform synagogue was definitely a worthwhile endeavor, not only for himself and his family, but for the other members of the community who joined, and even for his patients. “My participation in the spiritual life of Congregation Beth El, as reflected in its music, led to a deeper understanding that my practice of medicine had to involve much more than attending to just the physical well-being of my patients.” ~ Carol Patton, freelance writer, “The Rheumatologist” - Jessica Lanton