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

In a city where everybody is nice, where conference tables in fancy law firms take the place of the proverbial smoke-filled room, Michael Levine is something else.

He is not particularly nice. Nor is he a law firm kind of guy, or even a conference table kind of guy. ("Michael doesn't do well in meetings," one of his friends tells me.) 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.

So I practically fell off my chair last week when Levine told me that he'd hired a lawyer for his latest crusade. And not just any lawyer. The buzz around town is he's got somebody at Lewis and Roca, the bluest of blue-chip firms.

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

In a case like the one I'm about to describe, you don't hire Lewis and Roca to sue. You hire them to finesse the inside game.

Even Levine is a little sheepish about it. "Hey, I usually go in with my guns blazing and let the dust settle later," he tells me. "But now I have an attorney."

So here's the story: Levine is fighting to save an old Jewish temple in downtown Phoenix.

Here's the catch: Though he's a developer and preservationist with plenty of holdings downtown, Levine doesn't actually own the building in question. The building's owner, the nonprofit Black Theatre Troupe, is in escrow with someone else — developers likely interested in building a high-rise on the site, at Portland Street just east of Third Street. And until the deal closes in three months, the theater troupe won't even tell Levine its buyer's name.

No wonder Michael Levine has resorted to the trappings of respectability. This fight is not going to be easy.

But Levine's tactics are already paying off. Long-closed doors are opening at City Hall. Last week, Levine met with two of Mayor Phil Gordon's top aides, who say they hope to find a solution. Important people are rallying behind his cause, including the Goldwater family and Steven Spielberg.

The question now is whether Levine can actually prevail — or whether he's merely going to give an underfunded theater group a giant headache.

After all, no one has cared about the temple for nearly a decade now. And I have to wonder: Is that going to change just because Michael Levine is raising hell?


The synagogue at 333 East Portland Street was built in 1955 as a place of worship for Orthodox Jews who settled downtown after World War II. Since the Orthodox tradition bans any form of work on the Sabbath, even driving, other local temples were simply too far away.

In its heyday, Temple Beth Hebree consisted mostly of European immigrants who'd survived the Holocaust, according to a recent story in the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix. Its founder, Elias Loewy, has been called "the Jewish Schindler" because he saved more than a thousand Jews from a French concentration camp.

Loewy was far from the temple's only notable member: In 1960, a young Steven Spielberg celebrated his bar mitzvah there.

But not quite two decades later, the congregation moved into a building in west Phoenix. Eventually, it merged with another congregation and its second location also closed its doors.

In 1983, the Black Theatre Troupe bought the original Beth Hebree building, partly thanks to the intervention of then-Mayor Terry Goddard. Goddard thought the neighborhood would become an arts district.

While Goddard was ultimately right, the theater company was ahead of its time. "We went through the crackheads and the murders in that neighborhood," says David Hemphill, the troupe's executive director. "We have a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in that building."

But in Hemphill's telling, as the neighborhood finally began gentrifying, the old building started falling apart. There was a flood, an electrical fire, and then a second fire. In 2001, the troupe moved out.

Today, the troupe rents offices in an old house on Roosevelt and mounts its productions at the Herberger Center. Seeking something more permanent, it asked the city for money generated by the 2006 bond election. The city awarded the troupe $2.3 million, which, according to its application, would be used to renovate the building.

It soon became clear that the money wouldn't be enough, Hemphill says. "Just to wire it up to code, and give it adequate electricity to run a theater, we're talking $425,000." The troupe decided to sell the building, use the proceeds to create an endowment, and find a new home elsewhere.

This being downtown Phoenix during a boom, developers were already circling. Hemphill won't say who — the terms of the deal guarantee confidentiality until the escrow period closes in three months. But he confirms that the buyer has been assembling all the parcels on the block and that it isn't interested in the temple.

That's when Michael Levine entered the picture.

Levine is not religious but describes himself as culturally Jewish. When it comes to design, he says, he's "almost synagogue-obsessed."

And it's not just synagogues. Levine is responsible for saving the warehouse that would become Bentley Projects, just about the niftiest development to hit downtown in a decade. He owns a fleet of other warehouses, one of which he rehabbed beautifully enough to win the grand prize at the Arizona Historic Preservation Conference in June.

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.

"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.

One thing is clear. What Levine wants is no less than for the Black Theater Troupe to break its agreement with the unnamed developers.

No matter that, for the troupe, that would be lunacy. It's not just that breaking escrow could well doom the troupe, already broke, to a charity deal with a group Levine puts together. It's that the developers are unlikely to walk away quietly. They've already assembled the rest of the block.

"What nobody is saying is, 'If they sue you, we'll pay the legal fees,'" Hemphill points out.

Indeed, Michael Levine is threatening to sue the Black Theatre Troupe himself. "There is nothing off the table at this point," he promises.

But is Levine making a mistake by rejecting a compromise so quickly?

It's one thing if Levine's goal is keeping downtown from getting stuck with another boring high-rise. It's another thing entirely if it's about the Holocaust survivors.

If that's the case, maybe it's worth giving up the sense of place to save the space.

TOLD YA SO

A few months ago, I wrote about the lousy deal that the city of Phoenix made with Veolia Transportation, the French company that manages its bus service ("Taken for a [Bus] Ride," August 9, 2007). Without soliciting proposals from a single competitor, or even doing a real market analysis, the city had inked a new three-year deal with plenty of perks for Veolia — more money, less accountability.

I'm not the only one troubled by Veolia's new contract. Turns out, it stinks so badly that the feds decided to pull their portion of its funding.

On October 12, the Federal Transit Administration wrote city officials to say that the contract with Veolia violated federal procurement rules. The federal government is now refusing to give Phoenix any money for bus maintenance — a loss of $3 million a year.

Since the contract is good for three years, with the option of two one-year extensions, the city could eventually lose $15 million.

City Manager Frank Fairbanks referred me to one of his deputies, Tom Callow. Callow and I didn't manage to connect before my deadline, but I'm eager to follow up with him. For one thing, I want to know how the city is going to prevent this kind of screw-up in the future. Fifteen million dollars is a lot of money, and it's ridiculous that the city threw it away just because staffers couldn't be bothered to shop around.

Dianne Barker is the gadfly who complained to the FTA in the wake of our story. She hopes that the feds' decision will teach the city a lesson: "They're going to know nationally that we've got an energized citizenry and we're going to be watching them!"

Ladies and gentlemen, consider yourselves warned . . .

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