When Harvey Lee Block was in junior high school, he took an aptitude test to determine what professional paths might hold the most promise. At the time, he excelled at athletics and had his heart set on someday earning a football scholarship, so he wasn’t too excited to learn he could have a bright future as a clergyman or social worker.
“I laughed at that,” he said. “I really wanted to be an athlete.”
Today, the 70-year-old Block is living proof that the test was right. For the past 50 years, he has served as a cantor and a community leader to congregants of Glendale’s Temple Sinai as well as a newer congregation, Hugat Haverim (Circle of Friends), which joins Reform Jews from throughout the San Gabriel and Foothill areas in small weekly services.
To celebrate his service to the community, Congregation Hugat Haverim will hold a special birthday and anniversary celebration for Block on May 22 in La Cañada Flintridge.
Block’s commitment to Judaism began when he was just 5 years old and was so fascinated by the cantor who sang in the synagogue that he would come home and try his hand at the songs.
“I made up the Hebrew but I knew the melodies,” he recalled.
In 1961, Block studied at UCLA and enrolled in rabbinical school at the suggestion of his rabbi.
He eventually got work in religious schools that also wanted someone with singing talent, and his gift for leading children was recognized.
After spending two years living in Israel, Block returned to California in 1967 where he was hired as the cantor and youth director at Temple Sinai. Whenever there was a birth, bar/bat mitzvah, wedding, death or other event, Block was called to help perform the service. By the time he left Temple Sinai in 2000, he had logged more than 100 life-cycle services each year for 33 years.
Jackie Gish, a Glendale member of Hugat Haverim who attended Temple Sinai growing up, said Block has gained many followers in his decades of service.
“He’s got a lot of charisma, and he’s great with kids. He really listens,” Gish said. “And as a cantor, his voice is magnificent. He’s 70 years old, yet his voice is every bit as good as I remember it being 30 or 40 years ago.”
Another congregant, La Cañada resident Phyllis Kochavi, said kids who grew up with Block hope to reunite with him at the party as adults. His impact on the community, Kochavi added, is undeniable.
Block said he enjoys being a cantor because he gets to make people happy through song. When people ask him how he can witness so much death and tragedy, his answer is simple.
“It tears at my heart, but you know what? Next week there will be a baby naming and, the week after that, a wedding. You just forge on.”
The May 22 celebration includes food, wine and a reception. Anyone whose life has been touched by Block is invited to attend. Reservations can be made with a $30 donation; $15 for children under 12. For information and to be given the location of the party, call (818) 754-2414 or email email@example.com.