Gov. Greitens, Russel Neiss among ‘Forward 50’

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

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens and Russel Neiss, a local Jewish coder, have been named to the Forward 50, the Jewish publication’s annual list of the “most influential, accomplished and interesting American Jews.”

The Forward, the New York-based website and monthly magazine, described Greitens, the state’s first Jewish governor, as “a rising star in a [Republican] party bereft of Jewish leadership.”

In the last two years, the Forward also selected Rabbi Hershey Novack of Chabad on Campus at Washington University, and Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation.

“Combining rugged good looks and a solid conservative agenda, Greitens — who started out as a Democrat — won his race comfortably despite having no previous political experience,” the Forward writes.

The story also mentions Greitens’ response to the vandalism in February at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, when he appeared at the site with Vice President Mike Pence for a clean-up that drew more than 1,000 people.

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Despite its praise for the former Navy SEAL, the Forward writes, “his main campaign promise — clean, transparent government run by an outsider not tarnished by politics — has proved hard to deliver. Uproar over Greitens’ refusal to disclose names of donors, and his reliance on ‘dark money’ support groups, has put him on the defensive. And his strong push for anti-abortion measures has also angered moderates.”

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The Forward selected Neiss after a number of his social media bots went viral in the last year. In January, he created a computer program and Twitter account that every five minutes posted the name, picture and other details of the 937 passengers aboard the German transatlantic liner MS St. Louis, which was turned away from the United States in 1939. They were fleeing Nazi persecution and after returning to Europe, more than a quarter of the passengers were killed in concentration and extermination camps. 

More than 66,000 people followed the Twitter account @Stl_Manifest. 

Then in June, he created a bot that reformats all of President Donald Trump’s  tweets from his personal account so that they look like they official statements from the White House press secretary. The account, @RealPressSecBot, has more than 120,000 followers. 

The New York Times, the Atlantic and other news organizations covered Neiss’ social media work. 

“The Twitterverse is [Neiss’] classroom,” the Forward writes. “These recent expressions of wit and political engagement, along with Neiss’s apps (notably PocketTorah and The AlephBet App) and his work on Sefaria, the freely available library of Jewish texts online, have changed the way educators use texts and Jewish history.”

The Forward also notes that Neiss hacked the newspaper’s pay meter “so that all readers could get free access to the most important Jewish news in the country.”

The move “shows Neiss’s creativity and his deep commitment to education and justice.”

Neiss told the Jewish Light thathe was “honored and a little surprised by his selection.”

He also said that he was surprised that his social media schemes had gone viral. 

In addition to his software and education work, Neiss creates the bots, he said, “because you want a creative outlet. It’s not because I thought these were going to go viral or change the national conversation. I have gotten lucky more than anything else.”

He said that he created the press secretary bot because he wanted to emphasize that “when the president speaks” it’s an official statement that has the ability “to move markets. These can set off political firestorms both at home and abroad. I wanted to give the presidents’ words the respect that they deserve, so to speak.”

Neiss, who is married to Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, developed the idea to tweet the names of the MS St. Louis passengers in January after Trump signed an executive order banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Also in starting to tweet the names on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, he was trying to “do something as a memorial to the victims of the Shoah.”

Neiss is now working on a bot that each hour will tweet a piece from a new online database of Jewish art. 

“I don’t think it will” attract ‘120,000 followers,’” Neiss said. “But it’s another playful way to harness technology to share Jewish content.”

Other recipients this year include Rainer Weiss, a physicist who won the Nobel Prize this year for his contributions to the search for gravitational waves, Maggie Haberman, The New York Times White House reporter, and Michael Signer, the mayor of Charlottesville, Va., site of the neo-Nazi rally earlier this year.