On the Trail: Greitens reflects on his Jewish faith through lens of cemetery vandalism

Feb 24, 2017
Originally published on February 23, 2017 6:32 pm

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens is one of the more prominent Jewish political leaders in America today. For him, his response to this week’s vandalism at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City  goes hand-in-hand with his “go to the front lines” philosophy.

The Republican chief executive sent out a Facebook request for people to help clean up the traditionally Jewish cemetery, where more than 150 gravestones were desecrated. Hundreds showed up, and Greitens’ call to action became a national story when Vice President Mike Pence accompanied him to the cemetery Wednesday.

In a telephone interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Greitens said it’s important for elected leaders to step up – especially as Jewish institutions across the country are facing threats.

“People don’t expect you to be perfect. But they do expect you to lead,” Greitens said. “They expect you to show some sense of direction. … Too often times what happens is that politicians sit back and kind of wait to see what’s going to happen. I’ve always believed in leading from the front lines. A crowd waits to enter Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery for a volunteer clean-up event.

Pence’s appearance was notable — and not entirely embraced by some Democrats — considering that critics have ripped President Donald Trump for not being more forceful in denouncing anti-Semitism. It also comes nearly two years after Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich killed himself, a death that sparked a painful conversation about whether anti-Semitism was baked into the character of the state’s politics.

Democratic State Rep. Stacey Newman, who has relatives buried at Chesed Shel Emeth, said she’s bothered that “our synagogues and Jewish centers all have to live under this every single day and be prepared.”

“Our governor has a responsibility. Not just on these Jewish attacks, which we presume are based on anti-Semitism, but everything else,” the Richmond Heights politician said. “I would greatly like to see our governor of Jewish faith stand up for everyone that’s under attack. I think it’s back to not just the governor, but also gets back to all of us – as voters, as constituents to hold him and other leaders accountable and responsible.”

But Greitens provided “outstanding support and outstanding leverage of his office,” according to Andrew Rehfeld of the St. Louis Jewish Federation.

“The governor got on the phone with me on a number of occasions on the day before and said ‘what can we do to help?’ And he suggested some things given his knowledge and organization,” Rehfeld said. “We would have had a few hundred people there. Maybe even 500. It helped us turn something that would have been great into something that was impactful beyond our wildest dreams.”

Greitens himself said that he heard from Trump, who told him that he “wanted to thank the people of Missouri for demonstrating this is not who we are as Missourians. It’s not who we are as a country.” And while Pence and Greitens rode together earlier in the day, Pence asked whether he could “lend an extra set of hands.”

Greitens told him: “Absolutely. We’d love to have you Mr. Vice President.” Greitens also said Trump told him that “the president wants to stand side-by-side with you in denouncing anti-Semitism.’”

Fallout from Schweich's death

Sunday is the two-year anniversary of Schweich’s death. Before he died, Schweich was prepared to accuse then-GOP chairman John Hancock of engineering a “whispering campaign” that he was Jewish. Hancock strenuously denied the accusations from Schweich, who was not Jewish. And Clayton Police did not find solid evidence of a whispering campaign.

Schweich’s death rekindled discussion about whether being Jewish was a liability in Missouri’s political world. But in many respects, this past election cycle seriously challenged that theory.

After all, Greitens became Missouri’s first Jewish governor thanks in part to his huge margins of victory in rural Missouri. He won those decidedly Protestant and Catholic areas even though his opponent, Democrat Chris Koster, scored endorsements from the National Rifle Association and the Missouri Farm Bureau.

And across the political aisle, Democrat Jason Kander nearly became Missouri’s first Jewish U.S. senator – and outperformed other Democratic hopefuls.

“I’m proud of being Jewish,” Greitens said. “We talked about it on the campaign trail. And everybody saw the results.”

He added: “I’m so proud of where Missouri is at. And obviously, we had this terrible act of vandalism. But I think that we have come such a long way.”

Greitens believes he was “embraced” by the people of Missouri — and that’s not just metaphorical. The most common reaction from people on the campaign trail when they heard he was Jewish, Greitens said, was a literal “bear hug.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics. Rosenbaum’s great-grandparents, Isaac and Adele Rosenbaum, are buried in the Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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