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Phoenix Developer Saves Historic Beth Hebrew Synagogue From Wrecking Ball

Published: Friday, September 18, 2015 - 12:06pm
Updated: Monday, September 21, 2015 - 9:01am
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(Photo by Phil Latzman - KJZZ)
Developer Michael Levine stands in front of the bimah at the former Beth Hebrew synagogue in downtown Phoenix
(Photo by Phil Latzman - KJZZ)
The Beth Hebrew synagogue at 333 E. Portland Street was built in 1955 and housed Phoenix's first Orthodox Jewish congregation.

An historic Phoenix synagogue is being brought back to life by a developer known for preserving some of the city’s oldest buildings.

The story of Beth Hebrew begins with a man named Elias Loewy, who also known as the “Jewish Schindler."

Loewy was a German-born survivor who remembered for his heroic rescue of more than 1,500 Jews from concentration camps in France during World War II. After the war, he moved his family to the U.S., first settling in New York, then on doctor’s advice for a heart condition, in Arizona in 1948.

The story of how the Loewys arrived here was told by Elias’s son Fred to the Los Angeles-based Shoah Foundation, which documents the stories of survivors.

“The doctor says ‘you must leave New York, it’s too cold for you.’ So we wrote away to different chambers of commerce in Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and California,”  Loewy told the foundation.

“We asked them, what are the chances for jobs and housing? They were all very negative — except Arizona, which said ‘come on out, there’s always opportunity.’”

After settling in the Valley, the Loewys helped establish the city’s first Orthodox Jewish congregation.

Following Elias’s death, Fred, who had been a member of the French resistance during the war, helped found the Beth Hebrew Synagogue in downtown Phoenix in 1955.

Members of the congregation have long since migrated elsewhere, leaving it empty — and it eventually fell in into disrepair.

A decade ago, as the synagogue was headed for the wrecking ball, journalist Deborah Sussman heard the story from Fred Loewy himself before he passed away in 2006.

“This is a building that has significant social history because it was co-founded by somebody who escaped the Nazis, because of the congregants who went here, because Steven Spielberg had his Bar-Mitzvah here," Sussman said.

That’s right. Adding to its lore, the famed movie director spent part of his childhood in Phoenix and had his Jewish coming-of-age ceremony in the building as a 13-year-old in 1960.

Sussman reported on the Synagogue’s historical significance in the Jewish News and alerted developer Michael Levine to its plight.  

“I would drive by the building a lot and look at it, and wonder what would happen to it. So, Michael sent me a text message, and it was a picture of the interior, and I said, ‘You broke in!?’ And he said ‘no, I bought it," said Sussman.

The concrete block structure still stands on 333 E. Portland Street after Levine spent $850,000 to acquire the property in March. He’s adding it to a roster of renovation projects he’s been involved in since moving to the Valley from Brooklyn two decades ago.

“What you’re really looking at is a ghost. I just got here in the nick of time to buy it, before someone else bought it and leveled it,” Levine said. “All the buildings that I’ve saved over last 20 years were all sold to me either as bulldozer bait or they were slated for demolition.”  

Last Sunday evening, Levine reopened the synagogue for an informal Rosh Hashana service to celebrate the Jewish New Year. The service was led by Phoenix lawyer and part-time cantor, Elliot Talenfeld.

“I read about the project in the Jewish News and came by on a day on my way from court back to home and Michael happened to be here and the place was open and he gave me the grand tour and then he made me stand up there on the stage there and sing, and the next thing you know, I was involved," Talenfeld said.

Also involved in the project is Phoenix native Andrew Gordon, who is p;resident of Arizona Multibank, a development corporation specializing in giving out community development loans. He credits Levine for taking a personal interest in preservation.

“Michael in many ways did everything to not just save the synagogue, but to bring it back to its origins," said Gordon.

And Levine — who isn’t particularly religious — said he hopes reviving a synagogue is something that be enjoyed by more than just Jews.

“This is like an out-of-body experience actually being in the building, It creates a dialogue of where people come from and what they’re about. So, it’s not just a Jewish experience of people who are willing to stick it out and survive. And the building embodies that," Levine said.

And Deborah Sussman, who’s reporting helped save the synagogue, agrees.

“I just think it has a lot of potential beyond the Jewish community itself. I do think it's important that the Jews of Phoenix know their history and for this building to here embodying those stories, I think is critical because the people are in the architecture," said Sussman.

While Levine figures out a plan for the synagogue's permanent use, Beth Hebrew will be used again for services during Hanukkah in December.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The story has been updated to reflect the name of the publication Deborah Sussman reported for.

Updated 9/21/2015 at 9:00 a.m.

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