As Douglas Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, shared memories of his childhood with a large crowd of teenagers gathered for an international convention in Dallas on Thursday night, he said what he remembers most was “the joy of growing up Jewish.”
“And I want you to all experience that same joy,” he said.
The Second Gentleman, who is the first Jewish spouse of a U.S. president or vice president, spoke against antisemitism and encouraged thousands of Jewish teenagers gathered for the BBYO International Convention in Dallas to express their identity with pride.
The BBYO is an international leadership program of fraternities and sororities for high school aged children, describing itself as a “pluralistic Jewish teen movement” with chapters in 60 countries. The International Convention in Dallas takes place Thursday through Sunday, and boasts over 3,000 participants from 44 countries.
During a roundtable discussion led by teenage speakers, Emhoff praised the convention for hosting an “open, safe space to talk but also to be openly Jewish,” and said he wished he attended such events growing up.
The Second Gentleman addressed recent high profile cases of antisemitism in the United States and the fears of many Jewish communities in the U.S.
In November, former President Donald Trump hosted dinner with a known Holocaust denier and Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kayne West, who was suspended from social media sites for a series of antisemitic comments. Emhoff called for consequences for hate speech, especially now when antisemitism comes from “alleged political leaders” and “people with massive platforms.”
“We got to call it out each and every time and not just let it become normalized,” Emhoff said.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, the group tracked 2,717 incidents of hate against Jews in America in 2021 with 112 incidents in Texas. In 2022 in North Texas, examples of local incidents included hate groups tossing antisemitic literature on Colleyville lawns and a neo-Nazi group protested a drag show in Grand Prairie. January marked one year since four people were held hostage in a Colleyville synagogue for 11 hours.
Emhoff said there is a “chilling connection between hate” and pointed to the slaying of 10 Black people at a supermarket in Buffalo last May. The gunman of the mass shooting, a white supremacist who espoused antisemitism, was sentenced to life without parole Wednesday.
Emhoff’s visit to North Texas is the latest in his campaign against antisemitism. Last week, he spoke with world leaders at the United Nations, where he urged diplomats to tackle what he called an “epidemic of hate.” In January, Emhoff toured Poland and Germany, where he visited the Memorial and Museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau and participated in the annual commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Later in the evening during an opening ceremony for the convention, Emhoff delivered a keynote address in which he encouraged the teenagers to be proud of their identity and work for social change.
Greeted by chants of “USA,” Emhoff welcomed the massive crowd to what he jokingly called “the Jewish Super Bowl.” In the crowd, regional divisions of the BBYO sported identifiers such as Lionel Messi jerseys worn by Argentina and cowboys hats worn by the North Texas-Oklahoma region.
In his address, Emhoff said young Jewish people encounter hate “everywhere” with the use of social media, and said the Biden-Harris administration is working on a plan to combat antisemitism.
Emhoff also spoke with pride of the moment he hung a mezuzah, an encasing containing Bible verses, to the door of the Vice President’s residence, and the time he and Kamala Harris hosted Passover seder there as well.
“Always live openly, always live proudly and always live loudly as Jews,” he said.
Ashley Abrahams, president of the North Texas-Oklahoma region, was one of four leaders who welcomed the convention to Texas. A junior at Prosper High School, Abrahams told The News this year’s convention location holds a great deal of meaning to her “coming from an area with so few Jews.”
She said she looks forward to experiencing havdalah, a service which marks the end of the Sabbath from the new week, at the convention.
“Now is Our Time”
Earlier in the day, other teenage leaders of the BBYO discussed topics relevant to their peers with the former prime minister of Israel Naftali Bennett, who also spoke at the opening ceremony.
Bennett served as Israel’s 13th prime minister from 2021-2022 at the head of a coalition of ideologically different parties that lasted was in power for just over one year. Since then, Bennett has become a private citizen and stepped away from politics, according to the Associated Press.b
In a roundtable discussion moderated by New York Times journalist Jodi Kantor, Bennett shared his thoughts on the Jewish diaspora, politics and the state of Israel, which has recently seen large demonstrations against proposed reform to its legal system. He called the biggest threat to Israel internal division and polarization, and defended his stance against Palestinian statehood.
When asked what he would say to young Jewish people encountering hate in their lives and on social media, he said “Be proud, fight, and never apologize.”
The annual conference’s theme this year is “Now is Our Time,” meant to celebrate Jewish heritage and culture, but also inspire participants to become involved in social change. The weekend’s events range from dancing seminars to celebrating Shabbat to celebrity guest speeches. Other opportunities include group discussions on issues young people face, including LGBTQ+ rights, climate change and racial justice.
The participants have the chance to take sponsored trips around Dallas, too, including visits to the Cowboys training facility, the Dallas Zoo and Billy Bob’s at the Fort Worth Stockyards.
Eighteen-year-old Levi Fox, 98th international president at BBYO (Grand Aleph Godol), is from Houston and the Lone Star region of the BBYO.
“We are so excited to host the largest gathering of Jewish teen leaders around the world,” he told The News. “It’s really a special moment for myself and the Lone Star community.”