President Joe Biden made history in October becoming the first president to hold a Rosh Hashanah celebration at the White House. The Biden administration has held several Jewish events since taking office in January of 2021, but arguably none as exciting as the White House’s first-ever Rosh Hashanah celebration.
The White House has regularly hosted a Channukah party for the public since the George W. Bush administration, which has become an annual go-to for many Washington, D.C. Jews as a large menorah is placed on the White House lawn and a party is held indoors.
Other past Jewish celebrations have included a Passover seder, which has occurred under several administrations, but Friday’s celebration marked one of the largest Jewish celebrations at the White House for a holiday ever, outside of Channukah and Passover.
As Vice President, Biden held the first-ever Rosh Hashanah celebration at the U.S. Naval Observatory, the residence of the Vice President, which now has mezzuzot adorned to its doors as Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff noted proudly on Friday. But this event marked the first High Holidays celebration ever held by a White House, according to the President.
As White House-branded yarmulkes were passed out in the historic venue, President Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden entered to cheers which grew louder as Jewish Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and Vice President Kamala Harris followed behind.
Dr. Biden spoke briefly at the event, remarking on the meaning of the High Holidays and the days between and their significance to Jews whom it offers a chance for “reflection and repentance” while also calling for “introspection.” She soon introduced Emhoff, who was greeted by loud applause upon arriving at the podium.
A Jewish native of Brooklyn, Emhoff is the first Jewish spouse of the first or second families and has regularly celebrated his ancestry and beliefs. Speaking to the crowd about how he has celebrated his Judaism over the past year and a half,
Emhoff spoke of how, “The doorposts [at the Naval Observatory] are protected by mezuzot…that’s two mezuzahs. We hosted a Passover seder. We’ve lit a historic menorah for Hanukkah. But now, we gather in the White House during the Days of Awe…between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.”
Recounting how he spent Rosh Hashanah as a child, Emhoff smiled as he recalled, “In my family, Rosh Hashanah meant a trip to my grandmother’s apartment in Brooklyn. And I can still smell that brisket cooking, and burning, in the kitchen. I can still taste the slightly warm challah, but slightly stale, on the table. And, of course, as a lot of you remember, my grandmother begged all of us kids not to jump on the couch because “I took the plastic coverings off!’”
As he began to introduce the president, Emhoff turned to a more serious subject, discussing how “Jews worldwide face horrendous discrimination and violence and antisemitism.” Emhoff spoke of the dangers to all Americans from hate and intolerance, and how the current administration believes in combatting antisemitism.
After concluding his remarks, Emhoff introduced President Biden, saying, “As the Jewish community in the United States and Israel and around the world take stock and renew our hopes for the start to 5783, we are grateful to be sharing it in one of the Jewish community’s best friends.”
Adorned by screens displaying “Shana Tova,” the president joked how both he and Emhoff had “married way above our station[s].” After thanking several attendees and speaking briefly on the devastation of Hurricane Ian, Biden said he was “honored to host the first Rosh Hashanah reception at the Naval Observatory…and humbled to host the first High Holidays events in the White House.”
Biden spoke of his long relationship with the Jewish community, and his friendship with Rabbi Michael Beals of Wilmington, saying, “I probably went to synagogue more than many of you did.” Although a practicing Catholic, Biden celebrated how he felt when spending time with the Wilmington Jewish community, saying “And just like rabbis, synagogues and Jewish community centers in your hometowns, you’re always there; your congregations are there for you and for everyone in the neighborhood, whether they’re Jewish or not.”
Continuing a theme from both Dr. Biden and Emhoff, President Biden highlighted the importance of the High Holidays as a time for repentance, quoting the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “[Rabbi Sacks] once said that the most important lesson of the High Holidays is that nothing, nothing, is broken beyond repair…It’s never too late to change and to be better. I’ve always believed that message, and I also think it’s universal.”
Harkening back to a moment earlier on in his presidency, Biden spoke fondly of his July visit to Israel where he met two Holocaust survivors, before returning to combatting antisemitism saying, “I think that, after all they experienced in the 1940s, today they’re witnessing a record-high antisemitism in 2022, they never thought would be the case again.”
Repeating a theme from throughout his presidency, Biden remarked on his efforts to combat hate and the danger it presents to the nation, saying, “I’ve made it clear since I was elected…hate can have no safe harbor. It’s never defeated; it only hides. It hides under rocks. And when we breathe a little oxygen under those rocks…failure to call it out is complicity, and the silence is complicity…We can’t remain silent. The rest of the world looks to us.”
After touting his efforts to combat antisemitism, the president reinforced his commitment to the Jewish community in combatting hatred, saying, “I’m not going to remain silent. We can’t remain silent…If we let it go, democracy and everything else is at stake.”
On a more hopeful note, President Biden concluded his remarks with his hopes for the new year, saying he prays that from “one of the most difficult moments that we’ve gone through in a long time, we emerge stronger,” before encouraging the crowd to follow the directions of the Talmud, as he quoted, “It is not required that you complete the work, neither may you refrain from it.”
I’ve made it clear since I was elected…hate can have no safe harbor. It’s never defeated; it only hides. It hides under rocks. And when we breathe a little oxygen under those rocks…failure to call it out is complicity, and the silence is complicity…We can’t remain silent. The rest of the world looks to us.
Before departing, the president invited guests to listen to renowned Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman, who played for the audience which included several high-level Jewish politicians. Among those in attendance were three of the five Jewish cabinet members: Attorney General Merrick Garland, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines.
As encouraging as the numerous Jewish events held at the White House under previous administrations, this most recent celebration continued to add to the list of “firsts” of Jewish celebrations that have occurred under President Biden, albeit many virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, often presented by Emhoff.
Emhoff has brought an unprecedented level of Jewish representation to the first and second families and has proudly celebrated his Judaism even as rising Antisemitism continues to threaten the American Jewish community, from all sides of the political spectrum.
As President Biden noted, “[the] resilient belief in the promise of tomorrow is embodied in thousands of years of Jewish history and in the story of America.”
- Nathan Posner
- President Joe Biden
- White House
- rosh hashanah
- George W. Bush
- Naval Observatory
- Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff
- First Lady Dr. Jill Biden
- Vice President Kamala Harris
- High Holidays
- reflection and repentance
- Yom Kippur
- Shana Tova
- Hurricane Ian
- Rabbi Michael Beals
- Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
- Itzhak Perlman
- [Attorney General] Merrick Garland
- Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas
- Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines