Temple of Doom

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.

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.