On a cold, breezy Tuesday night in Annapolis, Ralph Grunewald, the interim executive director of the Jewish Federation of Howard County, was advocating for $1 million to help fund a new 38,000 square foot building to house the Maryland Hillel on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus.
“College Park is a campus of 6,500 Jewish students. That’s the second largest in the country,” he said. “This million-dollar grant would be tremendously helpful for the interfaith work that the Hillel does.”
Provided the new Hillel can be built, the college plans to purchase the current land where the Hillel currently stands. Grunewald believes the transfer would be mutually beneficial to the school and the members of the Hillel.
Grunewald, along with representatives from Jewish communities across Maryland gathered for the Baltimore Jewish Council and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington’s annual Advocacy Day.
Throughout the course of the night groups of community members, organized by county of residence, met with their delegates to express support for House Bills and grant funding. Although the meetings were specific to place of residence, the issues brought to legislators were uniform for all who came to Advocacy Day.
In addition to the aforementioned proposed budget item, the Jewish community lobbied for House Bills 246 and 328, which aim to expand the definition of what constitutes hate crime and domestic abuse, respectively.
“The fact that threats are not included in any kind of penalty or tracking is of concern to us,” said Betsy Singer Marcus, the captain of the Howard County delegation, about House Bill 246, introduced by Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41).
“This bill would expand the current law to include any threats and attempts to damage or deface or destroy property,” Singer Marcus said.
“The current law only assesses real damage. I think that Charlottesville and other incidents bring these to the top of our minds.”
House Bill 328, the House version of a Senate bill introduced by Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11) calls to “[alter] the definition of ‘abuse’ for purposes of certain provisions of law relating to domestic violence to include misuse of telephone facilities and equipment, misuse of electronic communication or interactive computer service, revenge porn and visual surveillance.”
Sarah Mersky, the director of government relations for the BJC, recognized the benefit that passing HB 328 would have on the clients of CHANA, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore that aids victims of abuse.
“[Our CHANA clients] cannot get a protective order for lot of these electronic abuses,” Mersky said, “Right now, the law is really physical abuse-focused, but there are a lot of abuses that aren’t physical, especially in this modern age.”
A second issue related to hate crimes is a fiscal year 2019 budget item that would allocate $2 million for “The School Safety Grant Program.” In a 2016 report, Maryland State Police acknowledged a 40-percent increase in hate crimes from 2015-2016. As schools were listed as one of the top targets for hate crimes, this grant would provide resources such as adding security personnel or maintaining and/or upgrading camera surveillance systems.
The Howard County delegation consisted of 11 residents from the three districts that the county encompasses, districts 9, 12, and 13. Over the course of two short meetings, its members advocated in support of the house bills and budget items with Del. Eric Ebersole (D-District 12), followed by a meeting with Dels. Shane Pendergrass and Frank Turner, both District 13 democrats.
The evening ended with a large reception that was attended by many lawmakers including Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, House Speaker Mike Busch and Secretary of Aging and former Maryland State Sen. Rona E. Kramer, all of whom gave short speeches.
In his address, Busch took the opportunity to compare the Jewish community’s ability to find common ground despite its grand diversity to politicians in Annapolis who reach across the isle to do what is best for the state. “We do not perform here in Annapolis like they do in D.C.” he said to a large round of applause.
Rutherford encouraged all in attendance to hold their senators and delegates accountable warning that “The [legislators] say things to you, but vote differently.”
Since the reception was casual, many took it as an opportunity to build relationships with legislators without the rigidity of an official meeting. “A lot of advocacy is relationship-building,” Mersky said.
“There’s Gail,” said Howard county delegation member, Jeff Dannis, before leaving his seat during dinner to catch Del. Gail Bates (R-District 9).
For Dannis and Howard County residents, a conversation with Bates or another District 9 delegate was important, since they’d only spoken with delegates from Districts 12 and 13 during their meetings. Dannis returned feeling optimistic about Bates’ support.
Singer Marcus was in agreement with Dannis, and felt Advocacy Day was a great success. “I was really gratified at the energy and intensity of the advocates from Howard County and the BJC,” she said. “In turn, our delegates were very supportive of the issues we raised.”