UC Hastings Jewish faculty and students commissioned San Francisco artist Abrasha to make a mezuzah for the second family. 
UC Hastings Jewish faculty and students commissioned San Francisco artist Abrasha to make a mezuzah for the second family. 

UC Hastings to Kamala Harris: Where’s the mezuzah we sent you? 

When a friend of UC Hastings law professor Marsha Cohen read a media report last month that Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff had hung a mezuzah at their official residence in Washington, D.C., the friend excitedly shared the news with Cohen.

“They thought it was ours,” Cohen said, referring to a custom-made mezuzah that a group of Jewish faculty and students at Hastings had mailed to Harris and her Jewish husband last July as a post-election gift. “Turns out it was a borrowed mezuzah.”

Five months later, the group has yet to receive any kind of acknowledgment that their mezuzah — a $1,000 stainless steel piece designed specifically for the second family by San Francisco Judaica artist Abrasha — was received.

Marsha Cohen
Marsha Cohen

“It cost a lot to mail, but it did arrive,” Cohen told J. in an interview, noting that the mezuzah was sent by insured mail to the White House. “What we don’t know is whether it got to Doug Emhoff and Kamala Harris.”

In addition to the mezuzah, which has the Hastings logo and school motto laser engraved on its face, the group sent a card from the Hastings Jewish Law Students Association.

“Sending l’chaims, blessings, and well wishes on this historic win!” the card read. “May this mezuzah serve as a symbol and reminder of your values and love for one another and for your community, and a reminder of our support for you!”

Cohen, who has taught at Hastings for 45 years and calls herself the school’s “Jewish grandmother,” said she spent months researching the best way to mail a gift to the vice president of the United States, a Hastings alumna. She sent a letter to the White House asking for advice but did not receive a response. She also reached out to the offices of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, but that went nowhere. She even sent messages to Emhoff’s relatives on LinkedIn. (She said his ex-wife, Kerstin, responded but politely declined to get involved.)

“I have this mezuzah in my underwear drawer, sitting there in a pretty box, and I’m wondering what do I do,” Cohen recalled.

Finally, she connected with Nathan Barankin, a lobbyist who served as chief of staff to Harris during her terms as California’s attorney general and U.S. senator. Barankin contacted Harris’ staff and relayed instructions to Cohen to send the gift directly to the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., not to the vice president’s residence on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory.

I have this mezuzah in my underwear drawer, sitting there in a pretty box, and I’m wondering what do I do.

Cohen said she carefully packaged the mezuzah and taped a photo of it on the outside of the package as a heads up to the security personnel who screen White House mail. “I knew it would excite security,” she said. “It’s a small, metal, hollow object.”

The White House website notes that deliveries are “often significantly delayed” and that items “may be damaged during the security screening process.” A White House media director did not respond to an inquiry from J. about the whereabouts of the mezuzah.

Cohen said she got the idea of sending a congratulatory gift to Harris and Emhoff after a joyous virtual Shabbat gathering held by the Hastings Jewish Law Students Association on the Friday after election day in November 2020, when votes were still being counted. “It was everything but called on that Friday night, so everybody was just totally gaga,” she said. “Here is a Hastings alum who everybody was so excited about during the whole campaign process. Then she brings a Jewish husband with her.”

Since Harris and Emhoff would be moving into the vice presidential residence come January, Cohen thought it would be appropriate to send them a mezuzah. She commissioned Abrasha (whose full name is Abrasha Staszewski), a Dutch-born jeweler and Judaica artist whom she knew because their children attended the same San Francisco elementary school. (One of his pieces, a hanukkiah made from stainless steel, sterling silver and 24-karat gold, is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.)

Most of the money for the project was donated by Jewish faculty at Hastings, Cohen said.

Abrasha said he’s “disappointed” by the lack of communication from the vice president’s office. He, too, sent a letter to Harris and received only a form-letter response. “Somebody messed up at the office,” he theorized. “I’m more sad about it for the donors.”

Cohen and Abrasha said they felt even more frustrated after learning that the vice president’s staff had reached out to the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at UC Berkeley to ask for an object to hang in the residence. The object that the Magnes loaned out? A mezuzah.

A mezuzah from The Magnes at UC Berkeley designed by a German-Israeli-American sculptor named Ludwig Yehuda Wolpert will soon be installed at the vice presidential residence in Washington. (Photo/UC Berkeley-Neil Freese)
The Magnes at UC Berkeley sent this mezuzah, designed by a German-Israeli-American sculptor named Ludwig Yehuda Wolpert, to the vice presidential residence in Washington. (Photo/UC Berkeley-Neil Freese)

Undeterred, Cohen said she plans to continue to pursue the issue with Harris’ office. Although the two women are not close, Cohen said Harris recognized her on the street in Cincinnati when both were in town in 2012 campaigning for then-President Barack Obama’s re-election.

“She wouldn’t blow us off, I’m sure of that,” she said. “My heart wants to say that if she heard about a gift from Hastings, she’d have said, ‘Be sure to send a thank you.’”

John Ferrannini

John Ferrannini is an assistant news editor with the Bay Area Reporter and also writes for the Potrero View. He lives in San Francisco.