JCRC names new executive director

Batya Abramson-Goldstein (left) and Maharat Rori Picker Neiss

By Eric Berger, Reporter

Rori Picker Neiss spoke at the Jewish and Muslim Day of Community Service a couple of years ago and came away thinking, “It’s a great way to build bridges between communities that a lot of people think shouldn’t get along.”

Neiss will have an opportunity to develop other innovative programs as the new executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in St. Louis, which spearheaded the community service program. 

She will succeed Batya Abramson-Goldstein, who announced last year that she planned to retire after 26 years with the agency and 14 years as executive director.  Abramson-Goldstein will leave the executive director position Nov. 19 but will remain as an advisor to Neiss until the end of the year. 

Neiss and the organization could be tested by tensions between the Muslim and Jewish communities amidst the violence in Israel and between the white and African American communities because of the recent police altercations in Ferguson and elsewhere.

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But Neiss, who has faced challenges as a female religious leader in the Orthodox world, said she is excited about the position.

“It just seemed like a tremendous opportunity to create some real change in the community,” said Neiss, who had been director of programming, education, and community engagement at Bais Abraham, a modern Orthodox synagogue in University City. 

When she moved to St. Louis two years ago, she was remotely finishing her studies at Yeshivat Maharat in New York, a school that ordains women as spiritual leaders, maharat, in the Orthodox community. Not everyone has been supportive of the program.

“We cannot accept the ordination of women as members of the Orthodox clergy,” Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, then president of the Rabbinical Council of America told the Jewish Daily Forward after the first class graduated in 2013. “We do not accept the ordination of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of title.”

Neiss said she was not aiming to send a message with her ordination.

“The role of maharat for me was never about doing something controversial or trying to push forward a particular agenda. I was just passionate about this work” of giving people access to Judaism, she said.

After moving to St. Louis, Neiss expressed interest in interfaith work and everyone told her, “You have to meet Batya. You have to talk to Batya,” she recalled.

Neiss then got involved with JCRC and joined the board last summer. She thinks the organization, which leads programs such as student to student in which Jewish teens speak at schools where there are few, if any, Jews, has “really transformed not only the Jewish community, but the entire St. Louis community.”

In 2011, when Opera Theater of St. Louis staged “The Death of Klinghoffer,” a work that centers on the hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists and has been described as anti-Semitic, it was the first time the work had been shown in the United States in two decades. Rather than focus on the backlash, Abramson-Goldstein instead helped start Arts & Faith St. Louis, which aims to bring diverse groups together through art. 

Neiss contrasted that idea with the protests and calls for a boycott that the opera stirred at the Metropolitan Opera last year. 

In New York, “once the opera ended, the protesters went home and nothing new or productive emerged from that,” said Neiss. Here, JCRC created the arts program and used it as “an opportunity for dialogue.”

“They are some large shoes to fill,” Neiss said of succeeding Abramson-Goldstein. “If not for having her support and having such strong lay leadership and lay support it would be a far more intimidating task.”

Abramson-Goldstein said she is confident that Neiss will lead the organization in the right direction.

“She has a passion for the issues and a capacity to build relationships, which is so vital, and she’s creative,” said Abramson-Goldstein. “It’s a wonderful choice.”  

Neiss showed her passion when she was arrested in 2015 in downtown St. Louis while protesting the treatment of African Americans in the criminal justice system.

Neiss, who is married and has three children, wrote in the Forward of the arrest that it was her children’s “future that I was thinking of as I climbed over a police barricade onto the plaza. It was their world I hoped to change as I walked past the police line to sit in front of the courthouse.”

JCRC president Bob Millstone joined the board at the same time as Neiss and said he observed “that she was a good listener and asked great questions.”

“I think she is a person who clearly has a broad worldview that’s very open to a range of opinions and ideas,” said Millstone. “And she’s able to take that diversity of opinion to bring people to common ground.”