Meeting the Second Gentleman, Shofar in Hand



November 10, 2022

Jake Kornfeld headshot

When I was a kid, I would sometimes blow the shofar around the house, mostly to annoy my parents. They would always tell me to stop, and they made it clear that my shofar-blowing career would both begin and end at home. As I had no intention of becoming a rabbi or any sort of synagogue leader, my parents’ assumption seemed logical enough.

And yet, on September 22, 2022, I became the first person ever to blow the shofar at the Vice President’s residence, the Naval Observatory. This is an honor I will be proud of for the rest of my life. (My parents are proud, too.) I’m extremely thankful for the opportunity to have attended the interfaith Rosh Hashanah event, and I feel immensely proud of myself for completing the task of blowing the shofar in such exciting—and intimidating—conditions.

This journey started when Rabbi Daniel Novick, the Executive Director at George Mason Hillel, invited me to attend the event at the Vice President’s residence. I was so excited that I immediately called my parents. I didn’t tell them about the shofar, because at that point, I didn’t even know I would be blowing it. 

Then, when I got the email describing the event, I read that they still needed a shofar-blower. My friend encouraged me to volunteer, so I did. Even at this point, it was unlikely that the shofar-blower would be me. I hadn’t blown a shofar in years and didn’t feel confident. And in a final possible obstacle, the Second Gentleman’s team had not yet approved the blowing of the shofar at all! Luckily, on the day of the event, they said yes.

I got dressed up and brought with me the shofar Sydney Spanier, George Mason Hillel’s Springboard Fellow, had loaned me. This shofar is really special; Sydney had made it herself when a shofar-maker visited her Twin Cities community. When we got to the Naval Observatory, the security team gave the shofar a long look; after all, most people probably don’t bring ritual objects made from rams’ horns to this residence!

When the event started, I felt like I was floating. The situation didn’t seem real. Doug Emhoff, the Second Gentleman, was warm, casual, and seemed like a regular person living in extraordinary circumstances. We studied some Torah together, and the attendees had the chance to ask Mr. Emhoff questions. He talked about what it was like living in the Vice President’s residence. It was amazing to think about the fact that this wasn’t just the residence of the current Vice President and Second Gentleman; this was where Vice Presidents Pence, Biden, Cheney, and many others have lived.

Finally, I was told it was time for me to blow the shofar. I took the shofar out of the bag and stood up. I took a deep breath, hoping that I would be able to make the shofar produce the intended sound. Somewhat to my surprise, it worked. That was when Mr. Emhoff said, “You’re the first person in history to blow the shofar in this house.” He also asked if I had a lot of experience, and I told him the truth: I used to blow the shofar at home to annoy my parents. He laughed.

As we were leaving, I still hadn’t processed what had happened and what I had done. Eventually, it hit me what a huge honor it was to be the first to blow the shofar in such an important place, the Vice President’s residence. Mr. Emhoff is the first Jewish resident of that house, so he was making history. Because of him, I was able to contribute to history, too, both as a Jew and as a queer person. 

When you’re a queer Jew, you’re often the first to do something or to go someplace. Both Jews and queer people have been excluded and discriminated against for so long, and being able to take up space in such a significant place is really meaningful. As the grandson of Holocaust refugees, the meaning of this experience hits especially close to home. 

The Jewish people have a long and intense history, and being celebrated in one of the most important residences in the country is truly an honor I will always cherish. Hearing the shofar is a mitzvah, and the fact that I was able to provide that mitzvah for those gathered at the Second Gentleman’s Rosh Hashanah event is remarkable. I’m incredibly proud to have represented queer and Jewish people in this historic way.