(From left) Vice President Kamala Harris, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, Rabbi Mychal Copeland, and Kirsti Copeland at a Hanukkah party at the Naval Observatory in Washington, Dec. 18, 2022. (Photo/Courtesy White House-Samantha Appleton)
(From left) Vice President Kamala Harris, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, Rabbi Mychal Copeland, and Kirsti Copeland at a Hanukkah party at the Naval Observatory in Washington, Dec. 18, 2022. (Photo/Courtesy White House-Samantha Appleton)

Why S.F.’s LGBTQ synagogue sent a menorah (and rabbi) to the Vice President’s house

Leading up to Hanukkah, Vice President Kamala Harris and her Jewish husband, Doug Emhoff, were in search of a menorah that represented their Bay Area roots. A member of their staff knew just who to ask: Rabbi Mychal Copeland of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, San Francisco’s LGBTQ synagogue.

Copeland sent one of the synagogue’s oldest menorahs to Washington with an accompanying note about the menorah and the history of the synagogue, which was founded by three gay Jews in 1977, and today is the only LGBTQ-rooted synagogue in the Bay Area.

The request was particularly meaningful to Copeland, in light of last month’s shooting at Club Q, a gay nightclub in Colorado where five people were killed, in addition to increasing anti-LGBTQ sentiment around the country.

“It seemed fitting to honor a community that celebrates these identities and has its home in San Francisco,” Copeland said in an email to J.

After mailing the menorah, an invitation arrived for her and her wife, Kirsti Copeland, to join Harris and Emhoff at their home for a Hanukkah celebration on Sunday, Dec. 18, the first night of Hanukkah. That night, Copeland stood at a microphone and co-led the blessings over the candles.

“It was an absolute thrill,” Copeland wrote. “Especially just a couple of weeks after Doug Emhoff convened a roundtable discussion addressing the rise in antisemitism. It was also meaningful for me to meet VP Harris after the Respect for Marriage Act was signed into law since she was one of those officiating at same-sex marriages at SF City Hall back in 2004 when my wife and I, along with so many in the Sha’ar Zahav community, were wed.”

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by J. The Jewish News (@jewishnews_sf)


At the celebration, Harris and Emhoff lit a menorah surrounded by approximately 300 guests. In the crowd were several other Bay Area Jewish leaders, including Ilana Kaufman, CEO of the Bay Area-based Jews of Color Initiative, San Francisco-based Democratic political strategist Sam Lauter, and Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

During the party, Emhoff spoke about the work he is doing to fight antisemitism, his Jewish upbringing, and how it guides his work now.

The following night, President Joe Biden hosted the annual White House Hanukkah celebration. Sarah Levin, CEO of JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), was in attendance, along with the San Francisco-based nonprofit’s president, Gina Waldman.

The menorah sent to Emhoff has been in use at Sha’ar Zahav for decades. It’s similar to the one used during the synagogue’s Pride Shabbat celebration when rainbow candles are placed and lit. The menorah is now on display in Emhoff’s office, and was lit on Wednesday night with Emhoff’s staff, according to Copeland.

This isn’t the first time Harris and Emhoff have relied on Bay Area Jewish institutions for their Judaica needs. A mezuzah from UC Berkeley’s Magnes Collection was hung at the Vice President’s residence in 2021.

Before serving Sha’ar Zahav, Copeland worked for 18Doors, an organization that serves as a Jewish resource for interfaith couples.

“So here I was, watching the first Jewish Second Gentleman lighting with our first woman, first African American, and first person of South Asian heritage as Vice President,” Copeland said. “A multiracial, interfaith family. That is what the Jewish community looks like!”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.