When Rabbi Joshua Aaronson arrived in Utah eleven years ago, Temple Har Shalom was a small Reform Jewish congregation meeting in rented space in Park City. Today, it’s in a beautiful new building with three times the attendance and a vacancy to fill. Rabbi Aaronson is moving on to Temple Judea in a suburb of Los Angeles – and leaving behind a lot of people who will miss him.
13-year-old Celia Robbins Davis is reading from the Torah, the scroll of Hebrew scripture on the day of her bat mitzvah as her family proudly looks on. She’s one of many young people mentored by Rabbi Joshua Aaronson during his 11 years at Temple Har Shalom . . . and she’s one who will miss him when he leaves for California at the end of June.
“He’s always been the rabbi that I’ve been with," Celia says, "and I don’t know there will be another one that plays the guitar while singing songs.”
Joel Fine, the president of Temple Har Shalom, says that musical ability is one of the things that has set the bar high for his replacement.
"Josh is a fantastic guitarist as well, that’s grown on us and it’s fun to have him play the guitar," Fine told KUER. "We’d like to have someone who’s musically inclined to also have a halfway decent singing voice. We’d want a rabbi who’s just very inclusive and engaging and actively gets involved with the congregation in fundraising and just really adds to the sense of community here."
Aaronson grew up in Philadelphia and studied at the University of Michigan and Hebrew Union College in New York. He served at synagogues in Buffalo and Cleveland before he spent four years in Perth, Australia. He was recruited to serve Park City’s growing Reform congregation just before the 2002 Winter Olympics.
"In a way, it was good that there was no building here to seduce me and there was really challenges because I was seduced by the quality of the congregants and the wonderful people that I met," Aaronson says. "And that’s really what swayed me. And many of the people that I met the first weekend that I interviewed are still close friends of mine."
Those friends include Father Bob Bussen, who, until recently, was the pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church.
"When Josh came, we kind of lived a parallel life," Bussen told KUER. "I had just built the brand new church across the street from the synagogue and knew all about what’s involved in that, and he became involved in doing the synagogue here. Both of them are very impressive buildings and very important to the community."
Father Bob was also holding religious services on the ski slopes in Park City during the winter, something Rabbi Aaronson says he also loved doing every Friday afternoon.
"And it’s Jews from all over the world," Aaronson says. "We have had Jews from Switzerland, we have had Jews from Australia and, of course, Jews from all over North America. Every service, before we begin, we ask everybody what your name is and where you’re from and, all across the country, all across the world, people come. And people leave happy, uplifted and I think, spiritually refreshed. It’s a great, great, great time."
Other friends recruited the rabbi to provide his own explanation for the dozens of shoes hanging in Park City’s legendary shoe tree on Prospector Avenue. It’s in a tongue-in-cheek video posted on YouTube.
So the Israelites then threw their best shoes into the burning tree. We’re talking Jimmy Chu’s. We’re talking Steve Madden. We’re talking Allen Edmonds… good shoes.
After Celia’s bat mitzvah service at Temple Har Shalom, her mother, Hallie Robbins, says the selection committee has a big job ahead.
"That’s gonna be the real challenge to find someone as wonderful as Josh, who’s been really a spirited and intelligent director of community life," says Dr. Robbins. "Rabbi means teacher, so being able to have someone who truly instructs us in community, fellowship and gatherings is really important.
Potential interim replacements have been visiting Park City in recent weeks. The search for a permanent rabbi will take about a year. Rabbi Aaronson, his wife and three teenage children will take up residence in Los Angeles so he can take his new position as senior rabbi at Temple Judea on July 1st.
Though he’s quick to give credit to others, Josh Aaronson is proud of what’s been accomplished at Har Shalom in the past eleven years, especially the synagogue’s efforts to include gay and lesbian families and mixed-faith families in the congregation.
"The best part of the job for me," Aaronson reflected, "is when someone comes up to me and says, something akin to, ‘Rabbi, you’ve helped me reconnect with being Jewish.’ Whether it’s a kid studying for bar mitzvah, whether it’s an adult, whether it’s a grandparent, that’s really the most important part of the job and the most gratifying part of the job."