Developer Michael Levine is passionate about 333 E. Portland St., where Phoenix’s first Orthodox synagogue, Beth Hebrew Congregation, stands. In fact, he is so passionate that he purchased the building in 2015 for $850,000, likely saving it from being demolished and replaced by a high-rise apartment.
The story of the building Levine weaves is one rich with characters from Phoenix’s past: a Jewish man who helped free hundreds from French concentration camps; a Jewish architect with a unique vision; a black theater troupe; and even a young man who would go on to become one of America’s biggest directors.
As part of an event organized by the Real Estate and Finance Division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix, Levine began his talk by asking the audience to picture Phoenix in 1955, the year the cornerstone for Beth Hebrew, also known as Beth Hebree or Congregation Ayn Yaacov, was laid.
With little more than 100,000 people at that time, Phoenix was small with an even smaller Jewish population. Levine said Beth Hebrew’s original membership was made up mostly of Holocaust survivors, many of whom prayed in Yiddish.
One survivor and Phoenix resident was Elias Loewy, who Levine described as “the French Schindler,” adding that unlike Oskar Schindler, Loewy was
Jewish and saved even more people than the German industrialist. Loewy rescued more than 1,500 Jews from concentration camps in France.
“The French had a loophole in their Nuremberg Laws,” Levine said, “where you could get your passport stamped — for enough money.”
Levine described how Loewy got his passport stamped, but instead of fleeing he went back to the camps to help others escape.
After the war, Loewy first moved his family to New York, but then relocated to Phoenix for health reasons. In Phoenix, Loewy helped found the local Jewish Free Loan Association, which assisted with the synagogue’s construction. Loewy’s son, Fred Loewy, who served in the resistance during the war, went on to become one of the founders of Beth Hebrew. Loewy died in 1954, leaving it to Fred and others to see the project through.
For help, they contacted a local Jewish architect, Max Kaufman, who himself came to the Valley for health reasons. Levine described Kaufman as a polymath with diverse interests, including studying hieroglyphics and building his own telescopes. Levine said Kaufman used these diverse interests when designing the synagogue building, encoding powers of three and the number 18 repeatedly throughout.
Once completed, the building was dedicated by Rabbi Abraham Lincoln Krohn, then the rabbi for Congregation Beth Israel. Levine told of a seminal meeting between a young Krohn and Rabbi Stephen Wise, an early Zionist and Reform rabbi, which inspired then-social worker Krohn to become a rabbi.
In 1960, the synagogue hosted future director Steven Spielberg’s bar mitzvah. Spielberg’s family attended the synagogue when they lived in the Valley.
In 1977, facing changing population distributions, the congregation relocated farther west, before eventually merging with Congregation Beth El in 1984.
The building itself passed first to a church and then to an African-American theater troupe, which painted the interior black and boarded up many of the windows. The troupe began seeking a buyer for the building, despite being awarded $2.3 million to renovate it from a bond proposition passed in 2006.
Since moving to the Valley in the early ’90s, Levine, originally from New York City, has been acquiring and restoring historic buildings through his company, Levine Machine.
Levine’s other restoration projects include 525 S. Central Ave., which was built in 1928 and now houses the boxing gym/bar The Duce; and 605 E. Grant St., a 1917 building now used by the Arizona State University School of Art’s Grant Street Studios.
Levine is one of the most vocal of a handful of developers concerned with preserving Phoenix’s history while still revitalizing the city’s center.
Forceful and direct, Levine is in the process of restoring the synagogue building. He discovered many of the original design elements were still intact, such as the clerestory windows, the Lebanon cedar bima and even the mikvah nestled on the stage directly in front of the bima.
Despite the exposed lumber and unfinished flooring, Levine has hosted a number of events at the property. To commemorate the 60th anniversary of its construction, Levine hosted a High Holiday service in 2015. In 2016, he held a musical Shabbat attended by more than 350 people. He has also hosted a screening of “Above and Beyond,” a documentary produced by Nancy Spielberg, Steven’s sister.
Levine is open to hosting other events, though ultimately he wants to find a permanent arrangement that would preserve the building for the wider Valley Jewish community. He discussed a few options, including turning it into a Holocaust memorial utilizing holograms and other technology to create an interactive and engaging experience. He noted that Phoenix is the largest city in America without a Holocaust memorial.
Somewhat frustrated by the lack of support he has received, Levine said that if he’s unable to work out longer-term arrangements in the next year, he may have to sell the building. Considering the giant apartments currently being constructed immediately to the south and west of the building, its sale could mean the building's end.
“The biggest problem is everyone’s attention span is shorter than they’ve ever been and everybody wants an elevator pitch,” Levine said. “I have a story about the Holocaust in Phoenix, Arizona, in the 1950s, when the population was 100,000. The story deals with a progressive Zionist reformed rabbi named Abraham Lincoln Krohn and an architect who had asthma and was an Egyptologist, an astronomer and an AIA-certified architect.
“The founding members were mostly Holocaust survivors who prayed in Yiddish, the ‘French Jewish Schindler’ and the youngest French lieutenant at the end of World War II,” Levine added. “That experience gave forth the kid who went on to be a movie director.” JN