Atlanta synagogue’s mezuzah adorns second family’s home

Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, joined by their family and Rabbi Peter Berg of The Temple Atlanta, participate in a blessing of the Mezuzah, Thursday, October 7, 2021, at the vice president’s residence in Washington D.C.

White House Photo/Cameron Smith

A mezuzah is a parchment inscribed with religious texts and attached in a small ornamental case to the doorpost of a Jewish house as a sign of faith. For the first time in U.S. history, a mezuzah has been placed on the residence of a nationally elected leader of our country, the vice president’s official home at the U.S. Naval Observatory. Rabbi Peter Berg, who serves as senior rabbi at the Atlanta Reformed Jewish synagogue The Temple, has a personal connection to this landmark moment. He joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to share his story.

“I received a call not too long after the vice president moved to Washington … I thought it was a phony phone call; I thought it was my brother-in-law playing a trick on me,” said Berg. “It was pretty quickly clear that it was the vice president and the … first Jewish second gentleman. They told me that they were sourcing mezuzahs, mezuzot in plural, because they wanted to hang a meaningful one on the Naval Observatory.” 

Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff and Rabbi Berg holding The Temple’s mezuzah. PHOTO COURTESY THE WHITE HOUSE

Berg proceeded to create a report on his Temple, its history and its collection of mezuzot. After a quiet period, he eventually got the return call inviting him to attend the launch of Vice President Harris’s vaccination tour, which took place in Atlanta.  “They told me that I would have 10 or 15 minutes to speak with the vice president. So naturally, I did what anyone would do. I talked about Israel, and anti-Semitism, and social justice and the Temple’s history … We talked about the two homeless shelters that my predecessor, Rabbi Sugarman, started, the ongoing work of social justice that we do every day here at the Temple.” 

Then, when Berg was getting the wrap-up signal from Harris’s handlers, he pitched one last question. “‘What about the mezuzah?’ The vice president said, ‘If I told him once, I told him a hundred times,’ referring to her husband. ‘He’s got to pick the mezuzah already.’ And it was a funny moment, filled with levity,” Berg said. That October, Berg received the news that Harris and her husband Douglas Emhoff had selected the Temple to source their mezuzah. He was personally invited to Washington for its hanging.

“The second gentleman was so unbelievably proud to be the first Jewish second gentleman. It just was this beautiful, emotional feeling that he expressed,” said Berg. “He was particularly proud to hang this mezuzah on the front door for the first time, that every time they walk through that door, which is every single day, that they would see.”