On the weekend before his January 9 swearing-in ceremony, Eric Greitens, soon to become governor of Missouri, called up United Hebrew Congregation, a Reform synagogue in St. Louis. He asked to attend the Shabbat service, and was honored with a special role in the ceremony, and a blessing from the clergy.
It’s hardly unusual for any Jewish community to show such respect to one of its own who has reached high office, but Greitens himself is unusual: He’s a Republican from a community known for its stalwart support for Democrats since President Franklin Roosevelt occupied the White House.
He would have known that very few of the congregants voted for him or for Donald Trump in the November election. Even the bat mitzvah girl’s speech, according to Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg, had a liberal tone. “But regardless of his politics, this was a very special moment of pride to have the first Jewish governor,” Rosenberg said. One member of the community approached Greitens during the typical celebratory light meal after services and told him he never believed he’d live to see a Jewish governor in the state.
And if pundits and Republican strategists are right, Greitens may provide his home state’s Jewish community with even more reasons for pride. He’s on every Republican future leadership watch list and has never been shy about his ultimate goal.
“When we did the ‘What I Want To Be When I Grow Up’ unit, Eric’s answer was ‘president,’” his kindergarten teacher, Anne Richardson, told St. Louis Magazine. Years later, he’d repeat this aspiration to a college professor.
He’s got the right résumé. He’s been a Rhodes scholar, a decorated warrior and a civic leader. Greitens — who’d never run for office before his bid for the governor’s job, and boasts about his outsider status — has shown great political nimbleness as he works toward his childhood goal. He spent his time earning accolades outside politics, and so he carries no baggage from the statehouse or city council. And when he decided to pull the trigger and run, he combined in his public profile the right amounts of conservatism, gun-loving patriotism and fiscal responsibility, alienating neither moderates nor extremists.
Indeed, the finesse with which Greitens handles his Jewishness is a prime example of his political skill. It could have been a liability. After all, Jewish faith functioned as a public embarrassment in Missouri as recently as 2015. Tom Schweich, a rival Republican candidate for governor, committed suicide in February of that year, shortly after claiming that one of his rivals has planned a “whisper campaign” about his Jewish heritage. Schweich, who was Christian, had a Jewish grandfather.
Yet Greitens, fully and openly Jewish, won the Republican primary with 35% of the vote, and then beat the Democratic candidate 51%–45%. And when, early in his governorship, vandals attacked over 200 gravestones at the Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery in St. Louis, he skillfully acknowledged his background by emphasizing its more universal values.
“As many of you know, I am Jewish,” Greitens told a crowd of hundreds of volunteers who gathered to clean up and restore the toppled headstones, “and in Judaism we have a concept of tikkun olam, or ‘repairing the world.’” He thanked the volunteers for doing their part. Vice President Mike Pence rolled up his sleeves alongside Greitens to join the restoration effort.
For many in the Missouri Jewish community, which is estimated at 65,000 people, 61,000 of whom live in the St. Louis area, this was their formative experience with Greitens, a governor who was virtually unknown to most a year ago and who had no involvement in the state’s politics.
“What happened at the cemetery catapulted our relationship with him,” said Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St Louis. “I was so impressed with him and with the way he showed his involvement.”
The Missouri cemetery vandalism marked a turning point in America’s response to the wave of post-election anti-Semitic threats and attacks. National media carried photos of Greitens and Pence raking the grounds of the desecrated cemetery; President Trump broke his silence on the issue and spoke out, and an outpouring of help from Muslim and Christian community members sent a strong message of unity in the face of the anti-Semitic attacks. Greitens chose to stress these moments, focusing on the community’s heartwarming response rather than on the incident itself.
Born and raised in St. Louis, Greitens came to the race for governorship with what St. Louis Magazine called a “superhero résumé,” including the All-USA academic team in high school; Duke University; Rhodes and Truman scholarships; a doctorate from the University of Oxford, in England, and, to top it all off - decorated service as a Navy SEAL.
He’s also a widely praised author and thinker. In 2014, Fortune magazine included Greitens on its list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders, citing Mission Continues, the not-for-profit organization he established to help post-9/11 veterans.
Growing up, Greitens family attended B’nai El Congregation, one of St. Louis’s oldest Reform synagogues, which recently merged with another synagogue because of dwindling membership.
In his book “Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom For Living A Better Life,” Greitens devotes a chapter to the Jewish idea of the Sabbath, preaching for the idea of taking off a day, whether religious or not. “What matters most is that you find time to stop,” he wrote.
Yet while Greitens was running for office, his Jewish faith was somehow hardly a campaign issue, for him or for his rivals.
“In fact, many well-informed people were surprised to find out after the elections that he is Jewish,” said political scientist Terry Smith from Missouri’s Columbia College, noting that he didn’t think Greitens’s faith would have been an impediment to his election even if Greitens had discussed it more.
Greitens married Sheena Chestnut in 2011 in Spokane, Washington, after his first marriage ended in divorce. Chestnut is similarly accomplished and has similar interests: She graduated from Stanford and was a Marshall scholar, earning a master’s degree in international relations from Oxford. She went on to earn a doctorate in political science at Harvard. She and Greitens have two children.
To be sure, it didn’t make sense for Greitens to woo fellow Missouri Jews by making an issue of his Jewishness. Like the bat mitzvah girl, most of them probably don’t share his politics, and there aren’t very many of them.
Greitens, who was once a Democrat, ran as a moderate Republican. In a 2015 Fox News article, he explained that, as he got older, he no longer believed in the liberal ideas with which he’d grown up. He even came to believe that many famous liberals were hypocrites.
He focused his candidacy on issues relating to taxes, and also on ethics and on his character, a chance for Greitens to showcase his stellar résumé — especially his military service. Navy SEALs are revered across the United States for their strength, discipline and skill, and Greitens emphasized this aspect of his background with television ads that received national attention.
One of them showcases Greitens’s biceps, strong jaw and easy way with an assault rifle as he stands on a dirt road, promising viewers that he’s their man if they want an “outsider conservative.” Then he dons a pair of protective glasses and squeezes off a few rounds, out of the frame and presumably into the woods.
The people of Missouri found a lot to like in this handsome warrior-scholar.
“The most common reaction people had in the state of Missouri when I told them that I was Jewish was that they gave me a bear hug,” Greitens recalled in February, speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition gathering in Las Vegas.
Greitens’s main strategic question throughout the campaign was the question of the exact distance he needed to keep from controversial presidential candidate Trump. He found the answer by focusing on fiscal issues. Greitens ran on a platform of lowering government spending, fighting entitlements and battling state unions. One of his first actions as governor was to make Missouri a “right to work” state, a euphemism for legislation aimed at weakening unions by barring them from forcing members to pay dues.
But Greitens also understood the importance of staying on Trump’s good side. Like many other Republicans, he made sure to distance himself from Trump’s offensive comments on women, describing them as “wrong and disgusting,” but at the same time vowing he was still behind the Republican candidate.
Greitens’s office did not respond to the Forward’s requests to interview the governor for this article.
As governor, Greitens is facing his most significant political challenges yet. Now that the outsider is in the Jefferson City governor’s mansion, unions and Democrats are up in arms over his anti-union legislation and are seeking a reversal. Meanwhile, the local press is holding Greitens’s feet to the fire after learning that the candidate who ran on a platform of ethics and clean government will not disclose names of donors to a not-for-profit group he was close to that backed his candidacy.
He enjoys a rare political opportunity to advance his agenda, with Republicans holding supermajorities in the state legislating bodies, but Missourians aren’t yet sure what this agenda is. Like the highest-profile outsider in the land, Greitens might find it easier to run as a renegade than to turn his candidacy into policy. “He used to be a Democrat, now he’s making conservative noises, but I think he’s a bit of a maverick,” Smith said.
But in Republican circles, Greitens is still enjoying his honeymoon.
Fox News Sunday recently chose him as its power player of the week, noting his outsider qualities, which, as proved in Trump’s race to the top, are valuable in winning the hearts and votes of Republicans.
Will Greitens’s Jewish faith become an issue if he decides to seek higher office? Experts say this issue has already been settled. “We’ve been there and done that,” said Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University.
“It’s hard to speculate what things will be like five or 10 years from now, but don’t we have the example of Joe Lieberman?” Gurock said, noting that in Lieberman’s run for vice president in 2000 and his presidential run four years later, “his faith was not an issue.” Nor was it an issue for Bernie Sanders, who got close to winning the Democratic nomination last year.
Greitens also caught the attention of Jewish Republicans vying for a fresh face with no ties to the fringe right wing. Major donors such as Sheldon Adelson and Steve Cohen contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to his campaign, increasing his out-of-state funding.
After Greitens’s speech at the RJC conference in February, a major Jewish Republican donor walked over to the press area to make sure reporters listened to the governor’s address dedicated to the recent spate of anti-Semitism in his state.
“That’s our guy,” he said. “You’ll be hearing about him.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.