Activist has a knack for turning code into viral social media phenomena

With a background in coding and Jewish education technology, Russel Neiss has created several social media projects highlighting social justice issues that have gone viral.Photo: Eric Berger

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Russel Neiss and Rori Picker Neiss like to joke that when they met in student government in college in New York, “Rori was trying to hold it together while I was trying to bring the whole thing down,” said Russel, who along with Rori attended the Macaulay Honors College at City University of New York. 

“He helped write the original charter of the student government and had intentionally written it to be flawed because the administration had asked students to write the charter” and create a student government, Picker Neiss said. “Russel didn’t think the administration should ask students to write the charter. He thought students should create student government, you know, government of the people, for the people.” 

A marriage and three kids later, Picker Neiss, 32, works in the nonprofit world to promote what she sees as a healthy democracy and Jewish community. Neiss, 34, remains more the outsider and has publicly challenged Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, of which his wife is executive director.

On Nov. 27, Neiss, a coder, created a website entitled Never Again is a Lie (neveragainisalie.com). It lists the Jewish organizations that 12 years ago signed a full-page advertisement in The New York Times calling on President George W. Bush to intervene in genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, where hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed. The ad proclaimed: “Never again.”

Now, the Israeli government is ramping up efforts to deport 40,000 African immigrants who entered through the southern border with Sinai, mainly from 2006 to 2012, from unstable countries such as Eritrea and Sudan. 

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Neiss divided the website into two columns: On the right are Jewish organizations that publicly opposed the Israeli government’s treatment of the immigrants and will “fight for refugees everywhere.” 

On the left side are organizations that “lied when we said, ‘Never again,’ ” because they have not expressed opposition to the deportations. In that column, among many other groups, are JCRC of St. Louis and Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

“If they were really serious about saving the Sudanese refugees, whom they said they were serious about 12 years ago, then it wouldn’t matter whether those Sudanese refugees were in Chad or Europe or the State of Israel,” said Neiss, a member of Bais Abraham Congregation, a modern Orthodox synagogue in University City. 

“Just because these refugees are in Israel and the Israeli government has a problem with that, that shouldn’t make any difference in terms of our communal response.”

Parts of the American Jewish community have expressed opposition to the deportations since Neiss launched the website. 

The website is Neiss’ latest effort to use his coding skills and creativity to highlight human rights issues — and less urgent matters — that he thinks are not getting enough public attention. 

“I joke in some ways that these Twitter  bots and digital activist projects that I end up engaging in, usually they come out of me being angry about something and trying to be slightly more creative and less curmudgeonly than just yelling and screaming and complaining to anyone who will listen,” he said.

Last January, President Donald Trump announced plans for an indefinite immigration ban of refugees from Syria and a temporary ban on refugees from six other Muslim countries. In response, Neiss set up a Twitter account for International Holocaust Memorial Day. He created a computer program that automatically posted on Twitter every five minutes the name, picture and other details of Holocaust victims among the 937 passengers aboard the German transatlantic liner MS St. Louis in 1939. The United States turned away the ship carrying Jewish refugees, some of whom later were killed or died in Europe. 

The @Stl_manifest Twitter feed attracted more than 65,000 followers. 

The New York Times and The Atlantic have written about Neiss’ digital projects. The Forward, a New York-based news website and magazine, named Neiss last year to its annual list of the 50 “most influential, accomplished and interesting American Jews.”

Creator of PocketTorah

Neiss, a Long Island, N.Y., native, first got into coding and computer technology as a hobby growing up. He played and made video games.

“I never thought I would be doing technology as a career,” said Neiss, whose primary work is in building Jewish education technology, such as PocketTorah, an app to help people learn the weekly Torah and Haftarah portions. He studied religion as an undergrad and then earned master’s degrees in education and library science. 

Rabbi Charlie Schwartz works for Hillel International and collaborated with Neiss on PocketTorah and the @Stl_manifest  bot. 

“He really embodies the Jewish values of seeing the world for what it might be and not what it is,” Schwartz said. “He is deeply Hasidic in that he is trying to overthrow the systems that keep us in different forms of idolatry to create something that is new and powerful.”

Neiss uses a fair amount of humor in his activism. And even though much of his life is centered around computer technology, he approaches it with some skepticism.

One of his first Twitter bots in 2014, @iJEdRevolution, takes technological buzz words and randomly mixes them each hour to create a satirical new Jewish educational idea that is shared on the Twitter account. 

One example, “An experiential Jewish values content-management system for Google Glass, with interactive maps.” 

So with the bot, he said, “on the one-hand, it’s a humorous sort of tongue-in-cheek sort of thing, and on the other hand, it says something serious and significant and meaningful… The perspective I want to bring to bear on the ed tech side is that not every use of technology is a good use. Just because you can do something technologically, doesn’t mean you should.” 

Neiss also created a bot, @RealPressSecBot, that takes President Donald Trump’s tweets and automatically retweets them with a letterhead as though they were an official statement from the White House press secretary. That account has more than 126,000 followers, including journalists whom Trump has blocked from his feed.

So when Trump tweets, “author Michael Wolff is a total loser who made up stories to sell this really boring and untruthful book,” with these “bots, you can help frame the story in some way. Once you see these tweets, mocked up as statements of the president, it’s hard to unsee them that way,” Neiss said. 

‘Passionate about … activism’

Neiss and his wife moved to St. Louis from Brooklyn about four years ago when Picker-Neiss accepted a job as director of programming, education and community engagement at Bais Abraham. In November 2015, she took over as executive director of the local JCRC chapter. 

“My wife is proud of my activism, and there are times when my activism makes my wife’s life difficult,” said Neiss, who had engaged in contentious back-and-forths with leaders or representatives of national Jewish organizations on Twitter before creating the Never Again Is a Lie website.

“Russel is incredibly passionate about social activism, about what it means for the Jewish community to stand up for what’s right,” Picker-Neiss said. And that’s something I really admire and respect about him. I don’t always agree with how he goes about doing it. I don’t always agree with what his cause of the day might be, but I would never try to take away from that ultimate passion that he holds.”

Migrant expulsion plan

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that the 40,000 Africans are “illegal migrants who come here not as refugees but for work needs.” 

The majority of the migrants live in south Tel Aviv, and some Israelis there have complained that they are causing an increase in crime.

Netanyahu said that the country would continue to “offer asylum for genuine refugees.”

 The Israeli government has granted asylum to less than 1 percent of the Africans in the country, compared to 56 percent of Sudanese and 84 percent of Eritrean applicants in other countries, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Advocates say far more than 1 percent fled persecution or genocide and qualify for refugee status under international law.

The Population and Immigration Authority in Israel has notified migrants from Sudan and Eritrea that they must return to their home countries or to an unidentified third nation or be jailed until they are deported. Migrants who choose to leave by March 31 will receive a payment of $3,500, airfare and other incentives.

Jewish groups such as the Union for Reform Judaism, the Anti-Defamation League and HIAS sent a letter to Netanyahu a few days after Neiss’ website launched telling him that “if you move forward with these plans, the lives of thousands of individuals will be put in jeopardy, and the name of the Jewish State and the Jewish People will be irreparably stained.”

(Neiss is not the only activist calling out Jewish organizations. Joey Low, a New York investor who has donated millions to Israeli causes, has brought activists and former African refugees from Israel to meet with Jewish organizations about the deportations and threatened to discontinue an annual $100,000 donation to a Jewish Federation chapter in New York unless it agreed to meet, according to JTA. The meeting happened and Low said he would likely donate.)

Jewish Federation of St. Louis and the local JCRC chapter have made no public statements on the deportation plan.

Picker Neiss said her chapter of JCRC was the first to reach out to Jewish Council of Public Affairs, an umbrella group for JCRC, to discuss the group’s stance on African migrants. On Jan. 17, JCPA issued a statement urging the Israeli government to suspend its deportation plans.

As to the local chapter, Picker Neiss said, “This is not a controversial subject within our JCRC, it’s more just a question of, is this something where we have the ability to create change by putting out a statement? What’s the value of putting out a statement if we don’t have the capacity to then put the work behind it?”

Andrew Rehfeld, President and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis, also questioned the need for his organization to make a public statement.

“I haven’t said a hundred things publicly about the Israeli government that I like or dislike,” he said. “They have policies that I think are wonderful and don’t get enough attention. I don’t stand up and say, ‘Look at this policy that’s so wonderful about helping Syrian refugees (in the northern part of the country).’ 

“I also don’t stand up and say, ‘Look at this terrible policy they have about Palestinians in the West Bank.’ The point is we are not here to make statements right and left about things but to mobilize to pursue justice in the world, first and foremost here in our community.” 

Speaking of the deportation plan for himself rather than Federation, Rehfeld said: “I think it’s terrible that Israel is deporting asylum seekers, and I think it’s something anyone should be outraged about.”

Still, he said Neiss is being “needlessly provocative to say that we lied when we said, ‘Never Again’ 12 years ago in a different context. (But) I’m glad that he is raising the issue.”

Neiss, despite his criticism of the deportations, said: “I’m a Zionist all the way through. My criticism of the State of Israel comes like the criticism of the American government. It comes from a place of love and wanting both countries to live up to the ideals and expectations that are in both countries’ founding doctrines.”

Neiss said he is also aware that “I can be a fly in the ointment for some people, that I can be an annoyance when I engage in some of this desire of asking folks to live better, to do better.”