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Second family becomes first to affix a mezuzah on executive home

<i>SecondGentleman/Twitter</i><br/>Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff.
Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff.

By Jasmine Wright

Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff achieved another first in their historic roles when they affixed a white mezuzah to the right-hand side of the doorway of the vice presidential residence.

The moment the sacred object was affixed to the Naval Observatory’s wooden entryway marked the first time an executive home has carried the abiding sign of sanctity of a Jewish home, according to Rabbi Peter Berg of Hebrew Benevolent Congregation (The Temple) in Atlanta, which loaned the mezuzah. Berg led the private ceremony at the Naval Observatory in October.

Emhoff is the first Jewish spouse of a president or a vice president, and Harris is the first woman and first woman of color to hold her title.

“It’s an extraordinary moment in United States history,” Berg told CNN in an interview. “And it was one of the great honors of my lifetime to be able to stand there with the second family as they placed that mezuzah on their home for the very first time.”

A mezuzah houses a small scroll that includes text of the Shema prayer, and fulfills the biblical commandment to affix the object on the doorpost of the home, a White House official told CNN. It signifies protection for the home, marking it as a sacred and holy space, and a reminder for those inside “to devote themselves to lives of meaning, value, kindness and love for all beings.”

In attendance were Emhoff’s parents, who had not seen their son or Harris in person since before the inauguration because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Both the second gentleman and the vice president spoke off the cuff about what it meant to them to be standing here. Remember, this was not a public event. There were no cameras and no staffers there. There weren’t Jewish elected officials. It was just a private family moment. And that to me is what made it so beautiful,” Berg said.

“When I started talking, we all teared up because of the significance and the history,” Berg said.

Berg said October’s ceremony, which he wrote, included two traditional blessings: one to sanctify the space and another to hang the mezuzah. A Shehecheyanu prayer was also recited, a ritual blessing said to sanctify “something precious and new,” per the official. The second family also participated in the reading to make the ceremony more personal.

Emhoff eventually shared those personal moments publicly ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, posting photos of himself on Twitter in the process of hammering the sacred tube to the wall. One White House official said it sits roughly one-third of the way up.

“One of my favorite memories was when our family visited and together, we hung a mezuzah on the front door of the Vice President’s Residence,” Emhoff wrote.

This ceremony marks the latest way Emhoff and Harris have celebrated the second gentleman’s Jewish faith during the first year in their new roles in the Biden administration. In March, Emhoff led the White House’s first Passover event, live streamed for the masses days before the actual holiday.

“He obviously recognizes the significance of being the first in this space and I think he’s very honored to have the opportunity to help lead some of these really important and significant traditions,” a White House official told CNN in March.

Harris herself has been a vocal advocate for the Jewish faith. Recently, she headlined the Anti-Defamation League’s “Never Is Now” conference, offering a robust rebuke of antisemitism. And she met Israeli Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid in October.

History made

The Temple holds specific social justice significance, with long ties to the civil rights movement and the fight against antsemitism.

Former Rabbi Jacob Rothschild’s relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led to Rothschild honoring the civil rights leader in Atlanta after he won the Nobel Peace Prize. The Temple was also home to Leo Frank, a Jewish man who was lynched in 1915. In more modern times, the Temple now works to reduce homelessness in the community with multiple shelters started by former Rabbi Sugarman.

That work is what drew the second family to choose a mezuzah from the Temple, Berg said, as they wanted to be reminded of the virtues of the Temple upon returning home.

The process started months ago when he received a call from an unknown number, with the caller saying they were looking to obtain a religious object for a “high-profile couple” who recently moved to Washington, DC.

Berg first thought it was a prank call, before realizing the caller was referring to the vice president. After taking photos of the mezuzah and summarizing the Temple’s lengthy history, Berg said he didn’t hear back until months later — in June when he was invited to attend a vaccination tour launch with Harris in Atlanta. Berg then spoke to Harris backstage.

“They started to whisk me away because my 15 minutes were up and I said, ‘By the way, don’t forget about the mezuzah.’ She looked up and said, ‘If I told my husband once, I told him 100 times, we’ve got to get the mezuzah picked,'” Berg said, recalling a moment of levity.

He was told months later that the Temple had been chosen and was invited to DC for the ceremony.

“The world is so filled with divisive politics, and this was just a beautiful ritual moment. Devoid of anything political, just pure beauty,” Berg said.

‘Family is everything’

The second family will affix a second mezuzah in the residence, from The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at the University of California Berkeley, according to the official.

It’s a sterling silver mezuzah, made after a design by Jewish American Sculptor Ludwig Yehuda Wolpert.

“This mezuzah case has inscribed the Hebrew phrase, ‘Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings’ (Deuteronomy 28:6), a traditional blessing for visitors and travelers,” the official noted.

Joel Goldstein, a vice presidential historian, summarized the significance of the historic moment to CNN as “keeping with the ideal of pluralism and inclusivity that has been a hallmark of the Biden administration, as reflected initially by the selection of then-Sen. Harris to be his running mate and now in her service as vice president.”

Tradition dictates that residents kiss the mezuzah as they walk into the home. During the ceremony, the question arose of whether to attach the cylinder either vertically or horizontally. Berg informed the family it’s meant to be attached diagonally.

“The reason why is because it reminds us of compromise and peace that should exist in the home. I explained that tradition to the second family and they felt it was just very deeply meaningful,” Berg said. “And I remember the vice president even saying, ‘Family means everything.'”

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