Fate of early modern synagogue in Phoenix, Arizona, linked to Holocaust survivors and Steven Spielberg, remains unresolved
by Samuel D. Gruber
ISJM, June 27, 2008
Demolition of the former synagogue known in Phoenix as Beth Hebrew (or Beth Hebree), an important early modern American synagogue, is still a likely possibility, despite efforts of local preservationist and developer Michael Levine who has sought to save the building. Many architects and historians in the United States and Europe have written to the Phoenix Mayor and other officials to save the building.
The former synagogue served until recently as the home of the Phoenix's Black Theater, which despite receiving grants to restore the building, decided to sell it instead, preferring new and bigger quarters. Levine unsuccessfully tried to purchase the building in order to save it, but it was recently sold to another buyer who may demolish it outright, or allow it to be destroyed through neglect.
The former Beth Hebrew at 333 E. Portland Street, while a small and seemingly simple building, is large in architectural and historical significance. It was designed in 1954 by Max Kaufman, and is an important and even exemplary example of early modern synagogue architecture in United States, and is among a handful of innovative modern interpretations of the traditional synagogue form which were built across the country – often by small congregations of modest means – in the first decade after World War II. These synagogues, almost all of which were inspired, sponsored or designed by Jewish refugees from Europe, laid the foundation for the widespread acceptance and use of modern architecture not only for synagogues in America, but for religious buildings of all denominations. Synagogue congregations, since they are independent bodies, could quickly decide to build in the new style for both practical and philosophical or religious reasons – they could be stylistic innovators and leaders, not followers. Other religious denominations, which are organized hierarchically, had to wait several years for stylistic (and functional) changes to be broadly accepted before adopting modern designs.
Orthodox Jewish congregations, of which Beth Hebrew was Phoenix's first, were particularly drawn to the modern style for religious and aesthetic reasons since they more strictly interpret the Bible's Second Commandment which forbids many types of decoration. Orthodox Jews also especially value the practical and symbolic qualities of light – in which Kaufman's design excelled. According to the book of Genesis light was a creation of God on the first day. Natural light also facilitates the required (thrice-weekly) reading of the Torah, and daily prayer. Orthodox Jews are also more apt to view the synagogue building as a container for prayer for their community – rather than as civic or public monument (or the sort that had become popular in American in the pre-War period). Such congregations favored intimacy over ostentation, which explains why Beth Hebrew was easily adapted for use as a small theater.
Kaufman's design relates to the first synagogue building of the great German-Jewish refugee architect Eric Mendelsohn – B'nai Amoona (1947-50) in St. Louis, and also to two 1960s synagogues of another Holocaust survivor, Werner Seligman (perhaps not coincidentally, B'nai Amoona is now used a performance space in a community culture center). To understand the continuing influence Beth Hebrew's style on synagogues you need only travel to nearby Scottsdale to see Will Bruder's Kol Ami. Like Beth Hebrew, Kol Ami uses simple forms and inexpensive materials to create a dynamic shape, and open flexible interior space, and it uses light as a dramatic and symbolic element.
The materials of Beth Hebrew are simple, but the design is elegantly refined to serve its function. Sightlines and especially the placement of the high clerestory windows are carefully considered. The high windows of the sanctuary provided light without distraction (as prescribed by many rabbis). There is also a kind of skylight set above the reader's desk where natural light falling on the desk (bimah) could offer dramatic effect, but it also helped the Torah reader to see – especially at the Sabbath morning Torah reading, when the use of artificial lights is discouraged.
Beth Hebrew is important for another reason. Like the mythical bird the Phoenix, for which its home city is named, the synagogue represents a Jewish community of Holocaust refugees that was reconstituted and reinvigorated out of the very real ashes of their destroyed communities, and the ashes of the six million European dead. Phoenix-like, Jewish survivors, led by the real Jewish hero Mr. Elias Loewy, rebuilt their lives in their new home of Phoenix and significantly rebuilt a new Jewish identity and life. Like so many across America after the war, their urge was to sustain identity but break from history – a history that had failed them. Architecturally, this meant finding a style of synagogue that was practical, but also managed to translate traditional forms into a new and modern idiom.
The need to appreciate the aspirations and achievement of these survivors is enough in itself to force us to give this small building great consideration. Loewy's story is as remarkable as any that one is likely to hear from the Holocaust period. He saved hundreds of people in France through his courage and wits, and when he came to Phoenix he continued to aid the needy through the founding of the Jewish Free Loan Society, a critical lifeline for the displaced and forgotten. This Society helped recent immigrants enter the American mainstream quickly and with dignity.
That these same survivors appear to have passed the story of their own survival, and of their optimism about America to a young and creative Phoenix Jewish boy named Steven Spielberg, elevates our consideration of this building to celebration. For I believe, after 20 years working with Jewish and non-Jewish communities in the European countries most affected by the Holocaust, that no single individual has done more to change broad popular perceptions of the events of the Holocaust and their significance than Steven Spielberg. While others have done more to document Holocaust horrors or to identify the names of victims, Spielberg has managed through his talents as a story teller to make the Holocaust part of the mainstream narrative of European history in a way that everyday people can understand and to which they can relate. First through the adaptation of the book Schindler's List – which in many ways has parallels to Loewy's own story – and then through the creation of the Shoah Foundation which has sponsored the video recording of personal testimonies of thousands of Holocaust victims and survivors, Spielberg has given faces and voices to the Holocaust victims, and he has salvaged a considerable degree of humanity out horror. I have never met Steven Spielberg, but I have met hundreds of people in this country, and especially in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, whose lives have been greatly affected by the stories he has told, and those he and his foundation have collected. And for the victims themselves, the opportunity to record their stories for posterity has often been a kind of vindication of their own survival, and a valuation of their human dignity. From all that I have heard, it seems that the seeds for this terrific work were planted by the refugee congregation of Beth Hebrew – where 13-year old Steven celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in 1960.
The destruction of this small architectural and historic gem – either by planned demolition or prolonged neglect – will be a loss not only to Phoenix, but to the world. There are many alternative uses for this building. There seem no real gain to the public good in destroying the former Beth Hebrew Synagogue, and a great opportunity to enhance the public good by saving it.
More on the threatened Phoenix synagogue, including illustrations and an animated tour.