A few months ago, second gentleman Doug Emhoff asked his team about what more he could do about the rise of antisemitic incidents across the country.
The issue had long concerned him. And in private conversations with other Jewish figures, he’d conveyed a desire to do something more forceful about it. His team decided that a roundtable with top officials would be appropriate. A few weeks ago, they started planning for it.
But things took a turn around the Thanksgiving break, when news emerged that former President Donald Trump had dined with two notable antisemitic figures: white nationalist Nick Fuentes and Ye, the rapper better known as Kanye West. Overnight, the roundtable that Emhoff had been planning became the most pointed administration response to a brewing national controversy. Come Wednesday, when top White House officials and Jewish leaders convene for it, it will further cement a status he never set out to have: one of America’s foremost Jewish political figures.
“I’ve had enough conversations with him and see him often enough to know the severity suddenly hit him like a ton of bricks,” Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, told media. “And he said, ‘You know, I’m in this position. I’ve got to do something.’ He really in his gut felt that it would be derelict on his part not to somehow try to move the needle or to move things forward.”
Emhoff is not terribly religious — and admits as much. He grew up in Old Bridge, N.J., a community with a fair number of Jews. He attended a temple there and was bar mitzvahed. But he was largely secular, exhibiting the type of faith common among his generation: spiritually connected but observant mainly on the High Holidays.
That changed when his wife, Kamala Harris, assumed the vice presidency. Emhoff was not just the first male to occupy his role, he was the first Jew among the four White House principals (the president, vice president, and their respective spouses). He explained to media last year that he became infused by a sense of purpose and, to a degree, burden.
“It’s really impacted him. He has always lived openly and proudly as a Jew,” said Liza Acevedo, Emhoff’s communications director. “Everything that he is saying publicly on this issue is what he’s saying behind the scenes. He has been outspoken on combating antisemitism and he’s turning his pain into action.”
Emhoff has responded to his role as second gentleman by embracing his Jewish identity. He hosted a virtual Seder, lit the menorah and made matzah at a Jewish school in the district. He’s visited the Holocaust museum in Paris during an official visit and attends his childhood temple when back in Old Bridge. When he affixed a mezuzah to the entryway of the vice president’s residence, he began to tear up, according to Rabbi Peter Berg, who led that ceremony with Emhoff.
Quite quickly, he came to symbolize every Jewish mother’s eternal dream: the Jewish boy who grew up doing good.
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