Milestone for Jews in Missouri politics

Missouri Governor-elect Eric Greitens and his wife Sheena wait for the church bells to toll at  noon on Monday during inauguration ceremonies on the steps of the Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo.  Greitens becomes Missouri’s 56th Governor. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — For the first time in its nearly two centuries of statehood, Missouri has inaugurated a person of Jewish faith as its governor.

“The people have spoken and a new direction has been decided,” said Eric Greitens, moments after being sworn in. “For decades, Missourians have talked about change. Now it’s time to fight for that change.”

Greitens, 42, became the state’s 56th governor during ceremonies on the Capitol steps Monday. A self-styled “outsider” who has never previously held political office, the nationally–known author and former Navy SEAL was elected to the position after out-dueling three GOP candidates to secure the Republican nomination and decisively upsetting Democratic favorite Chris Koster in November.

A resident of the Central West End, the new governor hails from the St. Louis area and brought some of those ties with him to Jefferson City — including an inaugural role for Rabbi James Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth. Bennett delivered opening remarks on the importance of prayer during a morning interfaith service held at St. Peter Catholic Church at which he quoted another local rabbi.

“Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman…once wrote, “prayer invites God’s presence to suffuse our spirits, God’s will to prevail in our lives,” Bennett told the standing-room only crowd. “Prayer might not bring water to parched fields nor mend a broken bridge nor rebuild a ruined city, but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, rebuild a weakened will.”

Later in the day, Bennett delivered the closing benediction after Greitens’ swearing-in, wishing him “mazel tov.”

“[I]n Hebrew, these words mean ‘it is a good sign.’ ” he said. “And so we pray this day that today will be a sign of bountiful good things, abundant blessings for all people to come this year and beyond.”

The new governor delivered an energetic inaugural address despite overcast skies and temperatures hovering at the freezing mark. 

“As governor, I will always remember why you sent me here and what you expect from me. I will be loyal to your needs and priorities—not to those who posture or pay for influence,” Greitens told hundreds of well-wishers during the 10-minute speech. “This is the people’s house. And to those who would trouble this house for their own selfish and sinful gain, hear me now. I answer to the people and I come as an outsider, to do the people’s work.”

Flanked by massive two-story tall flags representing the United States and the state of Missouri, the governor opened his remarks by paying respects to “those who have fallen fighting our wars, enforcing our laws, fighting our fires.” 

“I know these men and women; I have served with them,” said Greitens who founded The Mission Continues, a charitable endeavor to help veterans find volunteer opportunities. “I know the pride of carrying our nation’s flag abroad—and I have felt the grief of burying too many friends beneath that flag at home.”

His comments were reinforced not just by Greitens’ own military history but by some of the day’s events, which featured a lengthy tribute to “Honoring Missouri’s Heroes.” The tribute left the Capitol rotunda teeming with large contingents of men and women in uniform representing the armed forces, firefighters, police and others.

Greitens’ midday swearing-in was also marked by ceremonial artillery fire echoing along the banks of the Missouri River and the deafening flyover of a B-2 stealth bomber.

Greitens a former Democrat, seemed to strike some conciliatory tones toward wary members of the Democratic party, infusing a religious theme as he noted that Missourians will not agree on everything.

“Proverbs reminds us, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,’” said Greitens, who grew up at B’nai El Congregation, which has since merged with Congregation Shaare Emeth. “The Lord put each of us here for a purpose. Sometimes the purpose of our opponents is to be our teachers.”

He also reinforced the messages of his campaign, vowing to back down to neither political pressure nor political correctness and expressed a conservative view of limited government.

“Our administration can commit resources to serve those in need,” he said. “But bureaucracy is the wrong place to look if you’re seeking compassion.

“Caring comes from individual people,” he added, returning to scripture, “inspired by the ancient ideal laid down in Isaiah: ‘If you tend to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.’”

Greitens also made a nod to social justice during a recitation of Missourians’ great accomplishments.

“It was here that a slave named Dred Scott was told by the United States Supreme Court that a black man had no rights that a white man need respect,” he said, “and it was a son of Missouri, a poet named Langston Hughes, who delivered the best answer to Dred Scott’s unjust judges, when he said: ‘I, too, am America.’”

In the Capitol building before his address, Missouri’s only Jewish state senator sounded an optimistic note regarding the election of the state’s first Jewish governor.

“Just having somebody in a statewide elected position as well as the few of us who are elected in the House or Senate, I think it reminds those who haven’t met Jewish people that we’re just like them,” said Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur. “We’re people who care about public service. We’re people who care about social issues and economic issues and serving our constituents and our state well.”

Schupp, one of three Jews in the legislature, has met Greitens before. In fact, the two were guests at a weekend bat mitzvah together at United Hebrew Congregation. 

Schupp, founder of the Missouri Veterans History Project, noted a common interest in issues related to veterans and was optimistic that Jewish values could play a part in Greitens’ administration.

“I am very hopeful that those core 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,” said Schupp. 

However, Schupp still resides in the opposing party and Democrats continue to be vastly outnumbered in Jefferson City. She’s one of only nine in the Senate and both chambers now have veto-proof GOP supermajorities. 

“I know that these are the people who were elected but I’m not sure that this hyper-imbalance is good for the people of the state of Missouri,” she said. “I think we work better together when we are forced by our numbers to work together and to find reasoned compromise.

Greitens will now be the only Jewish statewide elected official with the departure of Democrat Jason Kander from the Secretary of State’s office. Kander lost his bid last year for a U.S. Senate seat. St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman, who is also Jewish, lost his Democratic primary bid for the attorney general’s chair in August.

On the other side of the Capitol building from Schupp, state representative and fellow Jewish Democrat Sue Meredith said diversity was important and she was also hopeful about the coming administration but sounded a more cautious tone on what it might mean to have the first Jewish governor.

“I am a big proponent of separation of church and state all the way around,” said Meredith, who represents a mid-county district that includes Parkway North High School of which both Schupp and Greitens are alumni. “I don’t think you should vote for someone or not vote for someone because of their religion. You vote on their behavior and what they actually do in life.”

Like Schupp, she said she hoped Greitens would exemplify Jewish values.

“I’m hoping that caring for others will carry through because we have a large number of people in this state who are not economically well-endowed,” she said.

Back in St. Louis at United Hebrew, Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg said her congregation was fortunate enough to host the incoming governor the weekend before his inauguration. She said he was called up for an aliyah and participated in the blessings before and after the reading.

He then delivered a few remarks on tikkun olam, directing them mostly to Simone Hotter, who was celebrating her bat mitzvah that day.

“He talked about one of the things that they have in common is that they both have mothers sitting in the congregation that morning who were crying tears of joy,” she said. “His mom was present as well at the service.”

Rosenberg said he stayed after the service to speak individually with congregants. She said that — judging from Facebook posts afterward — people found him “very genuine and friendly.” She said one elderly congregant approached her to note how important this was from an historical perspective.

“I still feel that regardless of what side of the aisle someone sits on politically, that for me when a fellow Jew is elected to public office — in this case, the first Jewish governor of our state — that it is something to be proud of,” Rosenberg said.