Arts and Culture | Religion & Jewish Life

Park City shul is popular venue for Sundance films — and ski-in Shabbat services

PARK CITY, Utah (JTA) – Call it the Sundance Synaplex.

This week, crowds of people will be flocking several times a day to Temple Har Shalom in this picturesque ski town, but they won’t be coming for Shacharit, Mincha or Maariv services.

Instead, for 10 days the synagogue is serving as one of the venues of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, with five screenings daily through Jan. 29.

It’s the fourth consecutive year that Har Shalom has become the “Temple Theatre” — one of the many elements that makes this Reform synagogue unusual.

Another is that Har Shalom is probably the only shul in the world with ski-in/ski-out services.

“At Har Shalom, Hebrew school is on Wednesdays; Sundays are for skiing,” says Ed Barbanell, who works at the University of Utah and has two sons in the Hebrew school.

On Friday afternoons during ski season, the synagogue holds a Kabbalat Shabbat service at the Sunset Cabin in Deer Valley, one of three ski mountains in Park City. The other two are Park City Mountain Resort and Canyons, which this winter opened the nation’s first glatt kosher restaurant at a ski resort.

“I am someone who spent about four seconds of his life thinking about Shabbat, but if I’m on the mountain, I’m there,” Jack Amiel, a Hollywood screenwriter and former resident of Los Angeles, said of the Kabbalat Shabbat services.

“You get people from Switzerland and France and New York and Pennsylvania,” he said. “You sing, you dance, you pound the floor to keep the beat with your ski boots. It’s fantastic.”

Until 1995, Park City had no synagogue. That year, a group of Jews took out an ad in a local newspaper declaring that “The time has come!”

It took another decade to build up enough momentum to begin construction. In the interim, the community grew and Seagram’s fortune scion Adam Bronfman, a well-known Jewish philanthropist who has a home here, donated the money to hire a full-time rabbi. Bronfman’s gift had a couple of conditions attached: The rabbi had to be willing to perform interfaith weddings and embrace interfaith families, and he had to be able to play guitar and ski.

Rabbi Joshua Aaronson was hired in 2002, and since then the synagogue’s membership has tripled. Among its members are many well-off Jews who have bought ski homes here and stayed for the high quality of life.

Nancy Gilbert, who serves on the board of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and owns a company in Boca Raton, Fla., that organizes trips to Israel, took her first ski vacation here in 2003 after seeing Park City host the Winter Olympics in 2002. Within weeks, she and her husband, Mark, an investment banker and major Democratic donor — they hosted Joe Biden for a fundraiser at their Florida home in 2009 and Michelle Obama at their Park City house in 2011 — decided to buy property and build a second home here.

Gilbert credits Aaronson with transforming the Jewish community in Park City.

“He’s a mover and shaker,” she said, calling him a perfect fit for this “small community with a big vision.”

A few years after he came to Park City, before the synagogue construction was complete, the rabbi asked Sundance Film Festival organizers if they were interested in using the temple as a venue. Once an agreement was in place, several Sundance-specific elements were incorporated into the social hall, such as high-end speakers and heavy curtains to block out light.

Designed by the German-Jewish architect Alfred Jacoby, the synagogue features blue-and-white, stained-glass window in the sanctuary by Japanese-American ceramic artist Jun Kaneko. Kaneko was recruited by congregant Josh Kanter, a past chairman of the International Sculpture Center. Kanter considers the result to be “a central component of Utah’s public art collection.”

The collaboration between the synagogue and Sundance has worked out well for both sides, the rabbi says.

“Our values are aligned,” Aaronson said. “Sundance is interested in intellectual freedom and helping make the world a better place through film. We’re interested in the same things through Jewish values.”

Temple president Doug Goldsmith, a fourth-generation Utahan, credits Aaronson for his children’s decision to undergo bar and bat mitzvahs — and for making Har Shalom welcoming to people like his wife, who is not Jewish.

“Non-Jews have been on the board and on the pulpit carrying the Torah and nobody blinks,” he said. “There is total acceptance for families who choose to live a Jewish lifestyle.”

The emergence of the local Jewish community has coincided with increased involvement in Sundance by individual congregants.

“Shabbat at Sundance,” an invitation-only Friday night dinner and Kabbalat Shabbat held as an official Sundance event, was the brainchild of Shari Levitin, a California native who moved to Park City 20 years ago as a senior vice president for Marriott. Levitin’s deepening involvement in Har Shalom coincided with her joining the Sundance Institute’s Utah Advisory Board. She hosted the first Shabbat at Sundance events at her home in 2008 and 2009 as a way of introducing the festival’s leaders to Har Shalom’s machers.

“It was a smashing success,” Shari says, with many more local Jews now involved in the Sundance Patron Circle and Utah Advisory Board.

Goldsmith says the greatest benefit of Har Shalom’s collaboration with Sundance is getting people from all over the world into the shul.

“Having people literally from all over the world being able to enjoy the incredible temple we were able to build really demystifies what’s in a synagogue,” he said. “They come in, they feel at home. It’s a great thing for us to do to be fully engaged in Park City.”

This year, on the last day of Sundance, the Temple Theatre will be turned back over to Har Shalom for a synagogue fundraiser featuring the first screening of Amiel’s new film, “Big Miracle” starring Drew Barrymore, five days before it opens nationally.