Gov. Greitens and tikkun olam

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens greets volunteers at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in February. After news broke about vandalism at the cemetery, Greitens called for volunteers to gather at the cemetery to work on cleanup efforts. To the left of Greitens is Vice President Mike Pence.  Photo: James Griesedieck

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

When Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens spoke at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City after gravestones were vandalized in mid-February, he used the phrase tikkun olam to explain his motivation for organizing a cleanup of the grounds. 

“As many of you know, I am Jewish and, in Judaism, we have a concept called tikkun olam … (which) translates to repairing the world,” said Greitens, standing with members of the clergy. “And the basic idea is that … every one of us has an obligation in our own lives to find a way to make the world better … and what we have done here today has been a tremendous act of repair.”

Greitens, a Republican, also referred to tikkun olam during a press conference with reporters at the cemetery. But the phrase is often used in conjunction with liberal political positions. 

Tikkun olam has become “a buzz phrase of American Jewish liberalism,” writes Israeli author Hillel Halkin in the conservative Commentary magazine.


Jews of various political traditions cheered and thanked Greitens on Feb. 22 when he walked through the cemetery alongside Vice President Mike Pence. But American Jews tend to vote Democratic. 

In the November presidential election, 71 percent of Jewish voters supported Democrat Hillary Clinton, according to the Pew Research Center. There are no numbers as to how Jews voted in the Missouri governor’s race.

At Greitens’ inauguration in January, state Sen. Jill Schupp,   D-Creve Coeur, who is Jewish and a Democrat, said she thought that having the first Jew elected Missouri governor “reminds those who haven’t met Jewish people that we’re just like them. We’re people who care about public service.”

As to their political differences, Schupp said, “I am very hopeful that those core [Jewish] values that we share will lead his service as governor of our state and that, as he said to me on the phone, his door will be open.”

Other Jewish Democrats also focused on the positives of having a Jewish governor. But that goodwill may go only so far as he aims to implement conservative ideas at the state level. The questions are whether Greitens will be able to maintain Jewish support during his first term and if, as many expect, Greitens runs for president, whether Jews would vote for a Republican candidate in greater than usual numbers.

Growing up Jewish

Greitens received criticism after the election and during his first month in office for not speaking to the media. His office had not responded to the Jewish Light’s requests for an interview until the day after the cemetery cleanup, when he agreed to schedule a telephone interview. 

Greitens, 43, was elected during a campaign cycle in which fellow GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Schweich committed suicide in part, some said, because of his concern that opponents were attempting to hurt his candidacy by telling people he was Jewish. (Schweich said he had Jewish heritage but was an Episcopalian.)

Asked whether he had ever encountered anti-Semitism as a candidate or since becoming governor, Greitens said, “Being Jewish is really important to me. We talked about it a lot on the campaign trail, and I think the results pretty much spoke for themselves. We won 111 of Missouri’s 114 counties.”

When the former Navy Seal told people that he was Jewish, he said, “The most common reaction was that they would give me a bear hug.”

Greitens attended preschool at the Jewish Community Center, where his mother, Becky Greitens, worked as a teacher, and celebrated his bar mitzvah at Congregation B’nai El, a Reform congregation that has since merged with Congregation Shaare Emeth.

“I was so grateful to grow up in a community that loved me and supported me, and that was true not only at the Jewish Community Center — I had a great upbringing at B’nai El and had fantastic Sunday school teachers who really helped me to see how I could put my Jewish values into action,” he said.

Greitens said that “The Sabbath” by Abraham Joshua Heschel, a rabbi and leading 20th-century theologian, is one of his favorite books and that honoring the day is one of his most important practices.  

“We aren’t always able to do it as perfectly as we would like to but certainly, every Friday night, we like to take a moment and really pause with our beautiful family and beautiful kids, [Jacob and Joshua], and spend the next day really enjoying each other and following that practice,” said Greitens, who married his wife, Sheena, in 2011. 

He also said that his Jewish faith inspired him to do humanitarian work in war-torn places like Bosnia and Rwanda. 

Becoming a Republican 

Marsha Koski, retired director of the J’s Early Childhood Center, said, “Certain kids you can almost predict that they are going to be successful, and Eric was one of those.”

Before his campaign started, Greitens took his mother, Koski and other preschool teachers out to lunch. Koski, a Democrat, voted for Greitens and encouraged friends to do the same.

The teachers “all voted for him and defended his Republican leanings because we know in our hearts that he wants to do the right thing for the state and for the country,” Koski said.

Greitens was once a Democrat. But he switched parties, he wrote in a July 2015 opinion piece on the Fox News website, because he no longer believed in the party’s ideas. 

He had concluded that “liberals aren’t just wrong. All too often they are world-class hypocrites. They talk a great game about helping the most vulnerable, with ideas that feel good and fashionable. The problem is their ideas don’t work, and often hurt the exact people they claim to help.”

He has since championed conservative positions on a number of issues, including abortion (he allocated $6 million in his proposed budget for centers that counsel women against having abortions); gun rights (a campaign ad showed him firing a machine gun and stated his support for the Second Amendment); and labor unions (he signed right-to-work legislation that prohibits unions from requiring workers to pay dues as a condition of employment).

A little more than two months into working with Greitens, Schupp, the state senator from Creve Coeur, said she has been “disappointed but not surprised” by the governor’s actions. She pointed to bills concerning labor unionsand said, “They will have a negative impact on families trying to make a decent wage for a day’s work.”

But she also commended Greitens for an executive order that provides six weeks paid leave to most state workers after the birth or adoption of a child.

“I am concerned about the direction the governor is leading our state, for the most part,” Schupp said. “But I am happy that there are areas like family medical leave [where] we can find common ground.”

When asked what he would say to people who disagreed with him on an issue like abortion, Greitens said, “I disagree with them, but I respect them, and I hope also that they respect my pro-life convictions. I hope that they respect that we need to protect the lives of the unborn, and I recognize that while we may have a difference on that issue, I do hope that there are other things that we can work on productively.” 

Changing the world through policies and laws

Rabbi James Bennett of Shaare Emeth was preparing to deliver remarks during an interfaith service on Greitens’ inauguration day when the proceedings were delayed. He and other clergy members had about 20 minutes “to just schmooze” with the governor in the anteroom of St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Jefferson City.

“I found him to be engaging and really amazingly down to earth and genuine and warm, and he had a real inclusive sense of community building with me and the other clergy,” said Bennett, who also delivered the closing benediction after Greitens was sworn in at the Capitol. “There was no policy or politics discussed. It was just really a pleasant time of talking about his hopes and dreams of becoming governor.”

The rabbi said that he has been pleased to hear Greitens refer to tikkun olam, but he is concerned about whether the “policies and legal changes in our state will improve the world.”

“I’m concerned about workers’ rights,” Bennett said. “I’m concerned about education. I’m concerned about the poor. I’m concerned about the hungry. I’m concerned about access to affordable health care for everyone in the state. I’m concerned about Medicaid expansion and services for the elderly.

“Those will be the measuring stick for me of whether the governor’s agenda for the state of Missouri does in fact improve the vision of tikkun olam.”

Investing in Greitens 

During the campaign, some of Greitens’ biggest donors were Jewish Republicans in other parts of the country. Bernard Marcus, a founder of Home Depot who lives in Atlanta, donated $275,000 to Greitens’ campaign, according to a St. Louis Post Dispatch database. Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino magnate and one of President Donald Trump’s biggest supporters, gave $200,000. And Steven Cohen, a Connecticut billionaire whose hedge fund pleaded guilty to insider trading, gave $100,000. 

All three are Republican Jewish Coalition board members. The director of the RJC did not respond to requests for an interview.

There has been speculation that these out-of-state donors are investing in Greitens with the idea that he will someday run for president.

Greitens registered the domain name in 2009. His kindergarten teacher told St. Louis Magazine in April 2016 that when the school did its What I Want to Be When I Grow Up unit, “Eric’s answer was ‘President.’ ” 

Ronald Weiser, who is Jewish and served as Greitens’ national finance chairman, told the Post-Dispatch a year ago that he doesn’t “think people are supporting someone for governor of Missouri because he might be a presidential candidate some day. That’s a long way to look over the hill.”

The Light asked in an email for comment from Greitens about what he saw as the motivation behind the out-of-state Republicans’ donations. His press secretary responded, stating, “I can’t comment on the campaign and anyone who supported it.”

Asked about his teachers’ estimation of him and whether he has considered running for president, Greitens told the Light, “That’s very kind of you to ask, and I know that my fantastic preschool teachers are probably promoting me already, but I am 100 percent focused on building a fantastic state here in Missouri.” 

Contact Staff Writer Eric Berger at [email protected] or 314-743-3674.