‘Downtown Shabbat’ draws 350 to historic synagogue

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The building at 333 E. Portland St. in downtown Phoenix began its existence as a synagogue, the home of Beth Hebrew Congregation, but it had been nearly 40 years since Shabbat had been observed there.

That changed the evening of Jan. 8, when Rabbi Samuel Cohon of Temple Emanu-El in Tucson led “Armon Bizman, a Castle in Time,” a contemporary musical service that drew more than 350 people, backed by the Armon Bizman Band, composed of members of Tucson-based indie rock band Sun Bones. The music was written by Sun Bones/Armon Bizman Band members Sam Golden and Bob Hanshaw.

“I didn’t know what to expect, and I was blown away when I got here,” said Golden. “The whole place filled up.”

Cohon spoke about the history of the building for the benefit of the audience, then began the service, which included the traditional prayers and music with a klezmer flair.   

The “Armon Bizman” Shabbat service has been performed a number of times in Tucson, but bringing it to Phoenix was the brainchild of local concert venue owner and music promoter Charlie Levy, who had seen it in Tucson, knew about the Beth Hebrew synagogue and thought the building would be the perfect venue for the service.

“I thought it was a very memorable night for the downtown Jewish community,” Levy said. “It was great to see so many people of all ages come together and to see the historic synagogue come to life. Michael Levine [the real-estate developer who purchased the building in March 2015] has done such a great thing for Phoenix by reopening the synagogue.”

After the service, attendees snacked on a vegetarian Mexican oneg Shabbat provided by Cocina 10, the restaurant inside Levy’s Crescent Ballroom music venue, including bean and cheese burritos, veggie tacos, cheese quesadillas and chips and salsa.

Among the attendees was Justin Finklestein, great-grandson of Beth Hebrew Congregation co-founder Elias Loewy and grandson of co-founder Fred Loewy.

“If they were alive. this would mean the world to them,” Finklestein said. “My grandfather would be crying. It’d be great.”

Diana Krohn, niece of Rabbi Abraham Lincoln Krohn, who laid the cornerstone of the building, said, “Michael brought life to this building, but the rabbi and the group brought spirit. It’s a good combination.”

A number of attendees expressed interest in attending the service again, and Cohon and the Armon Bizman Band are open to reprising the event in Phoenix, though there are currently no plans to do so.

“It was a fantastic turnout,” Cohon said. “We’re delighted with the response. I thought the crowd was really responsive considering almost none of them had ever heard the music before. It’s all new music except for the few traditional things that I chanted.

“We had a great experience.”

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