Temple of Doom

Michael Levine is determined to save the temple that rose from the Holocaust and bar mitzvahed Spielberg. The Black Theatre Troupe wants him to go away

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix had previously written about Levine's efforts to save a temple in Hungary. So when the newspaper began calling for the Beth Hebree temple to be rescued from the wrecking ball, Jewish News writer Deborah Sussman Susser called Levine for comment.

Susser has almost single-handedly made the temple's preservation an issue. (Full disclosure: As a journalist, I respect Susser's work. I also consider her a friend.)

Once he got the call, Levine was only too ready to get involved.

Michael Levine and the former Temple Beth Hebree
Tony Blei
Michael Levine and the former Temple Beth Hebree

"Look, this isn't just the history of the Jews, but the history of downtown," Levine says.

Normally, I have a hard time getting excited about historic preservation in Phoenix. I suppose this will earn me a giant "f--- you" from Michael Levine, but if the building is younger than my parents, I can't think of it as historic. That's true, I'd bet, for just about anyone who grew up in a pre-war house back east and never considered it "old."

But I have to admit, after talking to Levine, I feel differently about this one, and not because I see the building's charms. I don't. (This may make me a Philistine, but where Levine sees a diamond in the rough, from the outside looking in, I see only rough: peach stucco on a simple frame, the same unremarkable midcentury look that's everywhere in Phoenix.)

Where he's got me is the Holocaust.

A few years ago, I wrote about the local Holocaust survivor group's plans to build a memorial in Phoenix. That idea has stalled, partly because the group's architect had something grand and impractical in mind: an underground shaft with a pin for every one of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis. Unfortunately, the group simply doesn't have money for anything close to that scale.

As I interviewed some elderly survivors here, I became convinced that was the wrong way to go, regardless of the expense.

Earlier this year, I stood in the middle of Berlin's Holocaust memorial and felt the horror of what the Nazis had done. I also felt the enormous loss of life, the terrible absence of the Jews who'd settled in Europe and were killed for it.

The Holocaust story in Phoenix isn't the story of six million Jews who were murdered. That story is already told in dozens of memorials in the United States and abroad, often very effectively.

In Phoenix, the story is different.

Our city's story is the story of Jews who lived. Those Jews survived the camps, left Europe, and managed to build a new life in a place that couldn't have been more alien. It's weird enough to move to Arizona from the Midwest today. Can you imagine coming from Europe in 1946 and making sense of a place so sunny, so brown, so empty?

At the time, no one lionized those immigrants as "survivors." No one even helped them rebuild their lives.

But rebuild they did, and many lived to tell poignant stories of hope and forgiveness, of life after what surely felt like death. The temple they built at 333 East Portland is a symbol of that.

So what about the Black Theatre Troupe?

The troupe bought the temple in 1983 and, for years, kept the place going when no one else cared about it, including some local Jews. Indeed, when money got tight, the troupe contacted Beth El, the large Phoenix congregation that absorbed the members of Beth Hebree. Nobody, says Hemphill, wanted to help.

So, finally, Hemphill and company made a deal to unload an albatross and achieve fiscal stability. And now people are raising hell?

As much as I'd like this building to be saved, I can't blame the theater company for feeling blind-sided and unfairly vilified, just because it won't break its deal.

"Look," Hemphill says. "We're a theater troupe. Not to get into race issues, black, white, whatever, but we know what it's like to have someone threaten your history. We know what that is! For us to be accused of being insensitive to that — and to get cast as the villain here — is very, very wrong."

Hemphill and Levine aren't speaking. (Things have simply become too nasty; Hemphill actually got so choked up talking about the issue that we had to pause our interview.)

So when Hemphill told me that the unnamed developers were willing to give the building to Levine as long as he moved it off-site, I thought we'd broken the impasse.

But when I called Levine, I realized that this one won't be resolved with a phone call.

"For real historic preservation, buildings aren't supposed to be taken out of their context," he said. "That's not an appropriate compromise."

At that point, I knew I was dealing with the same old Michael Levine, the passionate preservationist who'd rather go for broke than accept terms that were almost good enough.

Indeed, in the course of our 45-minute conversation, Levine went on to say that one city official needs to be fired, called Hemphill a "prevaricator," and accused the troupe itself of "always having their hand out" and trying to cash in on city bond money. Some things don't change, even with a good lawyer.

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