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Utah’s skateboarding rabbi – where hip and hope meet

Temple Har Shalom Rabbi David Levinsky skates at the Park City Skateboard Park in Salt Lake City.
Temple Har Shalom Rabbi David Levinsky skates at the Park City Skateboard Park in Salt Lake City. Salt Lake Tribune

Rabbi David Levinsky had been in his new mountain home for barely a month when he officiated at his first Jewish wedding in the Beehive State.

It was for a gay couple.

Facing a crowd of wedding-goers crammed into Park City’s Temple Har Shalom, the Chicago-born, guitar-playing, skateboarding, hipster rabbi stood on the bima (platform), dressed in a traditional yarmulke and prayer shawl. He seamlessly blended elements of a typical Jewish ceremony — including a blessing for a happy life, which he knew by heart — with new, modern aspects chosen by the couple.

With each symbolic ritual, Levinsky offered simple explanations for the non-Jewish attendees.

“It was funny and it was moving and it was a memorable event,” recalls one of the grooms, Park City teacher Mark Parker. “The rabbi is excellent at what he does.”

Preacher. Teacher. Celebrant. Counselor. Musician. Reader. Scholar. Storyteller. Athlete.

Levinsky, who became Har Shalom’s rabbi and Saidye Rosner Bronfman Rabbinic Chair on July 1, is all that, congregants say, and much more.

He calls his approach to the centuries-old faith “open Judaism.”

“We welcome non-Jews or anyone into the synagogue who thinks that Judaism can be transformative in their lives,” Levinsky says. “We are not checking IDs at the door. We are not the Jewish border control or police.”

The goal, he explains, is “to practice a form of Judaism that is relevant and vital in today’s world — and do it in a very open way.”

Levinsky, his wife, Kate, and their 11-year-old son, Noam, heed Jewish laws — they eat kosher, for instance — but his wide-ranging views and outlook seem to fit the congregation, which began hunting for a new rabbi in 2013, after Rabbi Joshua Aaronson left Har Shalom to head a synagogue in suburban Los Angeles.

So how did this Summit County synagogue find an urbane Midwestern rabbi — trained in the country’s best schools and accustomed to a thriving Jewish community — and then persuade him to come to a liberal Utah resort town in a red state dominated by the Mormon Church and where Jews are in the vast minority?

With persistence, they say, divine promptings and a dollop of serendipity.

Now they hope their 47-year-old rabbi never leaves.

The music and the mystique

Levinsky grew up in a suburb north of Chicago, which was about a third Jewish. His Reform Judaism parents celebrated major holidays — Passover, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah — but were not particularly observant.

“My mother would pack ham sandwiches on matzo in my lunch for Passover,” Levinsky quips. “To her, it was all about the matzo.”

At the same time, the Levinskys were “Jewishly committed,” if not particularly devout in their practice, the rabbi recalls. “I didn’t go to Jewish schools — I went to school with Jews.”

While childhood friends imagined becoming firefighters and cops, he always wanted to be a rabbi.

“As a tiny little kid, I sat through adult religious services for hours,” he says. “This wondrous thing was happening around me that I didn't understand.”

He was enchanted by the mystery of it.

After earning a degree in English at Indiana University, he returned to the Windy City and played guitar in a semiprofessional rock band. At the same time, Levinsky plunged back into serious Judaism — this time in the strictly Orthodox community of Chabad Lubavitch.

It all unraveled one night, however, when he encountered a female friend from college he hadn't seen in years and instinctively moved to embrace her, a gesture forbidden among Orthodox Jews

“I realized hugging her was more important to me than not,” he says.

The band broke up and Levinsky went to rabbinical school in Cincinnati, Jerusalem and L.A. Professors came to see his potential as an academic, so they pushed him to get a doctorate in religious studies at Stanford, where he wrote a dissertation on how Jews, Christians and Greco-Roman polytheists (”long word for pagans”) got along.

From no to yes

Miriam Eatchel had been in the Park City congregation for a half-dozen years when she was tapped to co-lead, with Darcy Amiel, the congregational committee assigned with finding a new rabbi.

The two purposely chose panelists to represent the diverse groups that call Har Shalom their spiritual home — old, young, parents, singles, gay, straight, Jews by birth, Jews by conversion, long-timers, part-timers, newcomers and those at various points in their respective religious journeys — including non-Jews.

“We didn’t want this to be a pick of the search committee,” Eatchel says. “We wanted this to reflect the desires of the whole congregation.”

The group put out the word and got 27 résumés, interviewed some applicants by Skype, and then settled on two finalists: Levinsky and one other — whom they flew in to meet in person and give sermons.

Both were good, Eatchel says, but the congregation had a more emotional, visceral response to Levinsky.

So in spring 2014, Har Shalom offered him a job.

He turned it down.

The committee was devastated.

“We liked the other guy,” Eatchel says, “but we decided we couldn’t settle for someone we liked but didn't love.”

Casting aside the painful thought of starting anew, the committee members waited a few weeks, then re-extended the offer. They flew him to Utah again, this time with his wife, and tried to help him imagine living here.

“We told him we didn’t want just a rabbi,” she says, “we wanted exactly him.”

Levinsky accepted, adding that he couldn’t come for another year. So Har Shalom was forced to wait until this summer.

There is a Hebrew word for “meant to be,” Eatchel says, “and that’s how a lot of us feel.”

Given how small Utah’s Jewish community is, people are going to join a synagogue like Har Shalom only “if they find something meaningful,” says Michael Greenfield, Har Shalom’s director of education and programming. “If we make it difficult, or set a really high threshold for participation, they won’t come.”

The synagogue needed a “rabbi who gets that,” he says, “because it’s not something you can teach.”

Levinsky, he believes, gets it.

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