LeBust: Scientology's dark tower on Chestnut Street
David Braverman, founder and owner of LeBus Bakery, said an empty Center City high-rise drove him to leave.
A DARK TOWER ON Chestnut Street was the beacon that David Braverman said he needed to navigate his way out of the Church of Scientology.
Braverman, founder and owner of LeBus Bakery, says he spent close to $1 million on Scientology during nearly four decades - on the church's so-called auditing sessions to restore "beingness and ability," on travel to its massive Flag Building in Clearwater, Fla., and in fulfilling constant requests for donations. He also provided the catering for fundraising events.
Foremost in his largesse was the estimated six-figure sum he gave toward purchase of the 15-story former Cunningham Piano Building, on Chestnut near 13th Street. The church bought the building in 2007 for $7.85 million, touting it as its first "skyscraper" to replace its longtime Philly headquarters a half-mile away on Race Street. Plans for the building included a chapel, a bookstore, and even an office for a dead man - Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986.
But the Chestnut Street building appears no closer to opening in 2016 than it did in 2007. According to the Department of Licenses and Inspections, the Church of Scientology has yet to apply for work permits on the property. An L&I spokeswoman said recently that an issue over sprinklers and standpipes could land the church in blight court if a variance isn't granted by the Fire Department.
Braverman left Scientology about two years ago. He says something about the building bothered him: The Philadelphia area didn't have enough Scientologists to fill the Race Street offices, let alone a Center City high-rise.
"It was a catastrophically stupid idea," Braverman, 65, of East Falls, said during a recent interview at a Starbucks on Main Street in Manayunk. "I started to voice my opinion about it, very quietly, even though I had been behind it with catering events and donating all this money."
In 2011, Karin Pouw, a Church of Scientology spokeswoman, told the Daily News that the building would be open by 2013 and that the church's leader, David Miscavige, ideally would return to the area to cut the ribbon. Miscavige grew up in Burlington and Delaware counties and joined Scientology as a teenager.
One of Miscavige's victories was in gaining tax-exempt status for the Church of Scientology in 1993, assuring that both the Race Street and Chestnut Street locations would be untaxed.
When asked the other day to comment on the status of the Chestnut Street building, Pouw said only that it was still in the "planning stages."
In 2011, the church said the "Philadelphia/New Jersey area" had about 10,000 Scientologists.
But Braverman estimates that 50 or fewer practicing Scientologists live in the area, and he believes the church isn't having much luck recruiting and isn't even trying.
Increasing numbers of adherents have become disaffected with Scientology, he says.
A 2015 HBO documentary, Going Clear, based on journalist Lawrence Wright's book of the same title, was called the "final nail" in Scientology's coffin by The Week magazine in March.
"Scientology is a toxic name, way more than it used to be," Braverman said. "I don't think David Miscavige is looking for new members. He claims to be. As far as I know, he's just trying to milk as much as he can out of the diminishing flock that there is now."
Judaism to Scientology
Braverman stumbled into Scientology in 1971 while studying music at New York University, he said. He wanted to play piano better, and thought the teachings of Hubbard could help.
He had grown up in a staunchly Jewish family. When he was 11, his family moved from Northeast Philadelphia to Wynnefield to be closer to the Jewish day school then called Akiba Hebrew Academy, now Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.
He spent summers at the Hebrew-speaking Camp Ramah in the Poconos, in Wayne County - first as a camper and later, in his 20s, as music director. His late mother ran the office at the camp, which is affiliated with the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Conservative Movement of Judaism.
"After I got to college, my Jewish observance quickly faded, but even after I got into Scientology, I never considered that I 'converted,' " Braverman said. "If anyone asked, I always responded that my religion was Jewish."
After NYU, Braverman returned to Philadelphia, took graduate classes at Temple University, and conducted a choir that specialized in Israeli folk songs and music by Jewish composers. He started LeBus in 1978 with a loan from his parents.
Last March, Braverman detailed his experiences with Scientology on the website of a former top-ranking official with the church, Mike Rinder. The church, Braverman said, officially declared him an "SP" - "Suppressive Person" - after he publicly expressed concerns about the Chestnut Street building and other issues.
Still, he doesn't regret joining, and his feelings toward Hubbard remain complicated.
"Ultimately Scientology did change my life for the better; at least what I gained during the early days," Braverman wrote.
In the interview at Starbucks, Braverman said he regarded Hubbard as deeply flawed but a creative genius who didn't foresee the advent of the Internet and all the trouble it would bring to the church. But you can't just dabble in Scientology or extract the good parts, Braverman said, and that's why he thinks it's a cult.
"It's your life," he said. "You can't stay away because of the pressure and the [fund-raising] phone calls."
Braverman, who has three children with his ex-wife, said his mother would be happy that he left the church. Active Scientologists, he said, could not accept criticism of the church, even from relatives. No one else in his family became a Scientologist.
Church spokeswoman Pouw said the Daily News was focusing "on the bigoted statements of a single individual, while ignoring the thousands of people in Pennsylvania and surrounding areas who have benefited from Scientology."
"Every religion has its detractors. However, no religion is or should be defined by them. These typically are individuals who are afraid of something new or different that seeks to improve the world, which is the case with Scientology. Or they are motivated by hate, or even financial incentives to harass the church," Pouw wrote. "The number of individuals in this category is minuscule when compared to all those worldwide who embrace the religion and the good Scientology does for the world. They are irrelevant to our historic growth."
Pouw said Braverman knew what steps he needed to take to be in the church's good graces and chose not to take them.
Braverman said it's the best decision he's ever made.
"It's so much better," he said. "My life changed so much because of Scientology, even for the good. But Scientology is like a prison for the mind. You don't want to think certain thoughts."
On Twitter: @JasonNark