Courtesy of JTA. Photo credit: William Daroff
Vice President Kamala Harris address a Rosh Hashanah celebration at her residence in Washington, DC, Sept. 12, 2023

(JTA) — A Rosh Hashanah celebration at Vice President Kamala Harris’s official residence was a celebration of American Jewish success that included a reminder of the threats Jews still face.

Douglas Emhoff, the second gentleman, began by noting his amazement that as the descendant of Jews fleeing antisemitism in Eastern Europe more than a century ago, he has made history as the country’s first second gentleman, and the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice-president.

“I want to remind you all that it’s great to be Jewish!” Emhoff said to cheers at the outdoor party on Tuesday evening. There were about 150 people in attendance, including Jewish organizational leaders, politicians and entertainment figures.

That positivity was evident when Emhoff described his return this summer to the Jewish camp in Pennsylvania, Cedar Lake, which he attended as a child.

“They were still there being joyful and living proudly, openly and freely,” he said.

But he and Harris also emphasized the threat of antisemitism. Emhoff said the interagency task force he chairs is continuing apace in executing the White House’s strategy to combat antisemitism, although he was light on details.

“We are putting this plan into action,” he said. “I’ve been meeting with mayors, I’ve been meeting with leaders.”

Harris, citing reported spikes in antisemitism and other attacks on minorities, said the moment demanded action.

“We are being presented with a wake up call, the blast of the shofar,” she said, referring to the ram’s horn blasted during Rosh Hashanah and the month preceding it. “We are dealing with very powerful forces that are attempting to wage what I think is a full-on attack against hard won freedoms, liberty.”

She described “a venom coursing through our country” and said, “We are the antidote.” She quoted the Ethics of the Fathers, a rabbinic text containing a series of adages: “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”

Regina Spektor, the Jewish singer-songwriter who emigrated to the United States as a child from the Soviet Union, sang an arrangement of the High Holiday prayer Avinu Malkeinu, which she said she put together on the train ride from New York.

Spektor said she was delighted that a man sitting across from her removed his hat to reveal a kippah, and then began to study Jewish scripture — something she said was unimaginable in the country of her birth.