Adovcates from Jews United for Justice were busy Monday night at the State Office Building in Annapolis speaking with legislators and sharing some Purim gift baskets in the process.
The group’s Purim Lobby Night, now in its second year, saw an estimated 70 individuals travel to the state capital. The mishloach manot baksets gifted to legislators contained the usual Purim goodies such as hamentashen along with cards with information about the group’s legislative priorities.
During this particular visit, issues such as equity in the criminal justice system, migrant justice and renters’ rights were among the hot-button topics discussed with legislators.
Bennet Wilcox, the Baltimore community organizer for the group, came onboard six months ago after graduating from Columbia University last May. He led the bus of JUFJers from Pikesville.
“I think it’s really important that the legislators are hearing directly from us,” Wilcox said as the bus left Chizuk Amuno Congregation. “I’m hoping, in specific terms, that some of the JUFJers are able to have substantive and meaningful conversations with our legislators. Or maybe we can get good strategic advice from a legislator who is on our side. On top of that, it’s just building relationships.”
And for most, if not all, of the advocates in attendance, productive conversations were had. The group broke into sections by district. Claire Landers, who was a co-captain of the District 11 group (and is a co-chair of the leadership council for JUFJ Baltimore), led the discussion with Dels. Dan Morhaim and Shelly Hettleman. District 11 Sen. Bobby Zirkin was not in attendance, and Del. Dana Stein was absent due to a recent injury.
In the meeting with Morhaim and Hettleman, the delegates thanked their constituents for the Purim gifts, and a constituent brought up the topic of addiction, an area Morhaim has worked on as a legislator.
“All the bills I’m looking at here would be less relevant if people didn’t get criminal records at the outset and got into treatment when they needed it,” Morhaim said. “I think it’s the root of a lot of other things. Almost of all of it is addiction related.”
While in the State Office Building, District 11 constituents also spoke with Del. Keith Haynes (D-District 44A). While it was an unexpected meeting, Haynes welcomed the group into his office.
After the meeting, Landers told the JT that she found the delegates to be “very receptive.”
“For me, it was exciting to meet with delegates from the city who seemed really happy these Jews from the county really care about the city,” Landers said. “It was powerful when people went around the room [with Haynes] and said where they volunteer in the city. I think he was struck by that.”
As for why she initially joined JUFJ in 2015, Landers said she saw things “in our society at large, and Baltimore, in particular that gave me pain.”
“I needed a place as a Jew where I was energized by my Jewish values and could work to make a tangible difference on policies that I think were affecting people,” Landers said. “We have to stand for the orphan, the widow, the stranger, and I wanted to be part of a group that was doing something and is active on those issues.”
Molly Amster, the Baltimore director of JUFJ, likened the experience to Esther advocating for the lives of the Jews’ during the Purim holiday story.
“For me, it brings additional meaning to the holiday around this time of year,” she said. “I think a lot of people walked away feeling like they had a meaningful experience. The folks that I’ve spoken with really appreciated the face-to-face time with their legislators and getting their perspectives on the issues that we’re concerned about. We got some really helpful information from some legislators about some of the bills that we’re working on.”
During her evening in Annapolis, Amster spoke with staff members from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller’s office and Speaker of the House Michael Busch’s office to get their perspectives on certain issues.
“It’s so awesome to see people who don’t do this for their job learn the ins and outs of an issue and learn about the process and develop relationships with the legislators who represent them,” Amster said, “Then be able to go into a meeting and speak with some authority on the issues they’re concerned about and have a policy conversation with a legislator. That’s the kind of work we do — we want to develop leaders and empower citizens to take an active role in the legislative process.”