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Quest to save a very special shul

Beth Hebrew congregation in Phoenix, Arizona was built in 1955 to serve a newly established community of Holocaust survivors who had no Orthodox congregation to welcome them. Now one man is fighting to restore the 'complicated puzzle' of a building

    The Beth Hebrew building in Phoenix awaits renovation (Picture: Dennis Murphy/Dennis Scully)
    The Beth Hebrew building in Phoenix awaits renovation (Picture: Dennis Murphy/Dennis Scully)

    Wrapped in a tallis, Steven Spielberg steps up to the bimah at Beth Hebrew congregation in Phoenix, Arizona. Gazing up at the rabbi, he launches into his Torah portion tremulously, then with passion. The congregation listens, entranced.

    At least that’s how Michael Levine imagines it. Levine’s a brash Brooklyn transplant who’s made historic preservation his personal mission in Phoenix. Until a local journalist introduced him to the now-dilapidated Beth Hebrew, he’d never heard of it. Levine became obsessed by the ground-breaking modernist shul, where the Spielberg family worshipped in the 1950s alongside many of Phoenix’s Holocaust survivors. He’s now working furiously to restore Beth Hebrew’s glory, nearly 50 years after the sun set on its final Shabbat service.

    The shul fell into disrepair in the 1980s, and full-blown decrepitude since. Levine’s rescue of this anomalous architectural marvel — on the eve of its planned demolition — is a tale of war heroes, mysticism, urban sociology, and fierce dedication to the building’s Jewish soul.

    “I love buildings with stories,” he tells me, with uncharacteristic understatement, from his Phoenix home. “Even non-Jews get goosebumps when they stand inside this one.”

    The plot thickens further, with a Technicolor cast of characters. There’s a crusading rabbi named Abraham Lincoln Krohn, who marshalled money and resources to build Beth Hebrew. There’s an architect and amateur Egyptologist named Max Kauffman, who designed the shul around arcane principles of astronomy. And there’s a French Resistance fighter named Fred Loewy, the son of a man known as “the Jewish Schindler”.

    “It’s a complicated puzzle, all this,” Levine laughs on the phone from Phoenix. “I didn’t just fall for a building. This is completely different from any synagogue anywhere in the world.”

    The synagogue was built in 1955 to serve a newly established community of Holocaust survivors who had no Orthodox congregation to welcome them. Beth Hebrew’s precursor, a tiny home-based shul, was founded by German-Jewish Holocaust survivor Elias Loewy, who had rescued more than 1,500 French Jews from concentration camps.

    Loewy’s son Fred, the French Resistance hero, wanted to expand his father’s vision of an Orthodox shul for Phoenix. He and Krohn, the rabbi, ultimately made it happen. “This is one of the few synagogues anywhere founded by survivors,” Levine says. “And it’s the only one I know founded by people who actually killed Nazis.” He wants to honour that heritage by saving the shul.

    Even before the synagogue project, Levine cut an outsized figure around Phoenix, “a city where everybody is nice,” as local weekly New Times once put it. In a 2015 profile, The Phoenix Business Journal called him a “professional rabble-rouser... A preservation purist [who’s] not shy about taking on city hall... and doing rehab work himself.” New Times itself was more direct. Levine, they wrote, “is not particularly nice. Nor is he a law firm kind of guy, or even a conference table kind of guy. He’s abrasive and outspoken, and if you don’t like it, he just might just lob an F-bomb at you in his New Yawk accent.”

    Levine moved to Phoenix in the fall of 1990, an early refugee from New York City’s hostile economics. “The easy answer to why I moved here is so I could be a big fish in a small bowl in an up-and-coming city with great weather and a promising arts culture, but without real big-city headaches,” he says. “But I couldn’t afford New York for art or construction, and I had run-ins with the mob and the carpenter’s union.” Levine tried moving to Los Angeles in 1989, “but LA in the early 90s was rougher than New York. In Phoenix, I could weld outside — little rain meant no rust. Plus my brother was at Arizona State University, my girlfriend could teach in Phoenix, and we could all share expenses.”

    After a year, Levine started making waves, opening a gallery called deCompression that concentrated on “socio-political deconstructivist feminism”.

    Downtown Phoenix at the time included more than 100 warehouses; after Levine learned the circa-1918 Phoenix Linen and Towel Supply building was slated for demolition, he corralled private money to buy it. “Phoenix has one of the worst preservation records in the country,” he says.“They’re OK with tearing things down. It’s a young city with an inferiority complex.”

    Once he’d renovated and sold the warehouse — it’s now a renowned 26,000-square-foot gallery and event space — Levine was hooked. Over the next several years, he bought and transformed more than 10 other downtown structures, winning the Arizona Governor’s Heritage Preservation Grand Award for his restoration of a former textiles warehouse.

    Then came 2007, and a fateful trip downtown with local journalist Deborah Sussman. “She had done a story on a roots trip I’d taken to Hungary,” he says. “I had found the synagogue of my great-great-great grandparents. It was the tallest, most magnificent building in the region.”

    Sussman knew Levine had started studying Jewish monuments after the trip, and she had a building in mind for him to see. “I was just starting to explore the architecture and archaeology of synagogues, and how they’re a testimony of life and community after Jews are long gone,” he says.

    When Sussman and Levine pulled up at 333 East Portland Street — where a degraded Beth Hebrew now stood — he was stunned. “The building was boarded up, and in disrepair. But it had these really sharp, strong, amazing angles and modern lines. I’d driven by dozens of times, and never noticed. Now, I was struck by how intense and elegant it was. It was magnificent, even boarded up.”

    With characteristic intensity, Levine set out to learn the congregation’s story. He studied the personal records of Fred Loewy, the shul’s late founder. He learned about Rabbi Abraham Lincoln Krohn, an activist rabbi who had helped Phoenix’s large population of Holocaust survivors start the city’s first Orthodox synagogue, and ultimately became Beth Hebrew’s champion. He learned about Max Kaufman, the amateur-Egyptologist architect who embedded cosmological symbols throughout the building. And he became determined to restore it to its original glory, if not its original purpose.

    “The architecture stood in opposition to nouveau-riche buildings or traditional synagogues, most of which are designed by non-Jews,” he says. “You have to picture it when it opened. It’s a bright blue synagogue. It has orange, blue, and purple windows. The interior’s green and white.” He pauses for emphasis. “This is a 1955 Modernist building, built in the shadow of the Holocaust. Its architect takes it back to Egyptian design and an understanding of world, with forward-thinking astronomy. I’m pretty sure Kaufman created it as some kind of observatory. There are obelisks on either side of bimah. With pyramids on them! And stars of David! It’s like having a black church with a confederate flag.”

    Levine flew out Carol Krinsky, a New York University professor and expert on synagogue architecture, to appraise the building.

    “The synagogue’s importance transcends its design,” Krinsky tells me. “It was symbolic, in part, of societal renewal after the Second World War. It certainly represented a hopeful future in the USA for the refugee members of the congregation. It is also a rare example of a modernist religious building of that era in Phoenix, a city that hasn’t an infinite number of good survivors of the postwar generation.” Moreover because it mainly served a community of survivors, “it is a reminder that the Second World War actually happened, and had consequences.”

    Knowing the building had been slated for demolition, Levine sprung into action, negotiating with the local black theatre troupe — its last occupants — to decamp for other quarters. Once they did, in 2011, he bought and saved the building.

    “Thank God for Michael for bringing this back to life,” says Diana Krohn, the 74-year-old niece of Rabbi Abraham Lincoln Krohn. “You feel special in that building. My grandson’s 26. He doesn’t do anything religious, but he came to a music event at Beth Hebrew. And when it was finished, he turned to me and said, ‘This is going to be my temple’. He got so turned on by that room. Because that’s the way it feels. And that’s how Michael is.”

    Levine’s in perpetual fundraising mode, using his vision of Beth Hebrew to motivate donors. It’s a long haul. “I was naive enough to think people would want to paricipate instead of just patting me on the back,” he says. “I’m bad at asking for money.” He hopes to complete the project within two or three years. He’s already invested more than $1.5 million, “and the building probably needs another half-million for stained-glass repair, woodwork, and details. And then another million in technology.” He sees a hub of state-of-the-art technology where “the building can tell the stories of untold stories,” like survivor testimony in holograms or virtual-reality presentations of content from other museums, like the Wiesenthal Center or Yad Vashem.

    He won’t confirm that Spielberg has pledged financial support for the project, but he recounts a meeting with Marv Levy, the Hollywood titan’s publicist and consigliere. “Steven learned about the project and apparently said, ‘we have your back’,” Levine says. “A lot of people think Spielberg’s the greatest artist to come out of Arizona. I believe that architecture and design influences people. For me, this building was a tipping point and a major part of his aesthetic.”

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