After a wave of bomb threats against Jewish institutions across the country, Yehuda Neuberger sprang into action to defend minorities against an uptick in hate crimes and anti-Semitism.
That’s why he was elated when state lawmakers approved a bill in April that will beef up security at schools and childcare centers deemed at risk of attacks because of their ideology, beliefs and mission. The bill, which passed with near unanimous support in both chambers and was signed by Gov. Larry Hogan, will authorize the Maryland Center for School Safety to make grants for security-related improvements.
“When you look at everything that has gone on around the country recently, this is an important issue in all our communities,” said Neuberger, co-chair of the Maryland Parents for Education advocacy group.
Supporters of the bill have requested $8 million from the state to aid security training needs, cameras, technology, improved lighting and other facility upgrades. That number is based on a similar $25 million security funding measure that passed in New York, which has a population more than three times the size of Maryland’s, Neuberger said.
But because the bill was approved after the state budget was determined for fiscal year 2018, which started July 1, there is currently no money set aside for the program. Lawmakers will have to call for a special session or wait until the next legislative session convenes in January to work on funding options.
Hannah Marr, a spokeswoman for Hogan, told the JT that the Department of Budget and Management is currently reviewing funding considerations for the grants for fiscal year 2019, which starts July 1, 2018.
She said the governor is optimistic an exact figure will be decided before the legislature approves the next state budget.
“Gov. Hogan is committed to protecting vulnerable communities, and this legislation is one tool to help do just that,” Marr said.
Leaders of the Baltimore Jewish community said the measure is timely because of the five combined bombs threats the Weinberg Park Heights JCC and Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC received earlier this year. The threats to the two local JCCs were among 167 bomb threats to Jewish institutions in 38 states and three Canadian provinces from Jan. 4 through March 21, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Sarah Mersky, director of government relations at the Baltimore Jewish Council, said any funding the organizations that the BJC represents receive will provide a much-needed boost.
Each year, she noted, Baltimore religious schools, institutions and immigration centers, among others, receive federal and nonprofit security grants that cover primarily infrastructure and security amenities. Last year, she said, the area was awarded about $400,000.
“More and more, I think we’re starting to see how important it is to make sure our institutions are properly staffed to handle any type of threat,” Mersky said. “This is essential to our community, and we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to come to a reasonable number in the state budget.”
Among local Jewish institutions alone, Neuberger, who also serves as first vice president of the BJC, said as many as two dozen could receive grants should they choose to apply for them.
While funding questions remain, lobbyists and lawmakers are also working to come up with a list of criteria to determine how the grants will be distributed. But even with just the passage of the legislation, advocates say a strong message has already been sent.
“This is something the legislature can take ownership of, because they passed it and did so with very strong support in every respect,” Neuberger said. “It’s very nice to see when you have people rally behind important causes like this.”
In the wake of the community’s heightened sense of fear, Neuberger said a price tag can’t be put on safeguarding communities with the most up-to-date technology and resources. He spent weeks lobbying the legislature on the importance of that point.
It was evident from lawmakers’ faces during his testimony at the bill’s two hearings that his thoughts were taken seriously, he said.
“There was a lot of positive feedback and dialogue we received when we made our case,” Neuberger said.
Images of evacuated buildings from bomb threats and acts of vandalism struck a chord with Sen. Roger Manno, who is Jewish and served as the bill’s lead Senate sponsor. Manno (D-District 19), who represents Montgomery County, said it was important for him to help relieve the concerns many of his constituents raised.
In his district, Rockville-based Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School was the subject of two bomb hoaxes, which initially put Manno on alert. More recently, he said, the scenes of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Va., last month chanting “Jews will not replace us” last month were troubling.
“There are a lot of religious facilities and otherwise that are being targeted by people who just have a lot of hate in their heart,” Manno said. “Government can do something about that, which is what we did and will continue to do.”
He said many Jews and other marginalized group of people who might otherwise feel isolated or intimidated should feel a stronger sense of belonging within the broader community than ever.
“This just isn’t about the Jewish community, even though it’s a very important issue for us,” Neuberger said. “But I have worked with the Muslim community and heard a lot of the same issues come up. We need to make sure that everyone is protected. We think this is a big step to accomplish that.”