Baltimore Jewish Council Deputy Director Sarah Mersky remembers the first bomb threat to the Weinberg Park Heights JCC in January 2017. With the BJC offices in the adjacent building, Mersky and her colleagues evacuated the building, as did children being taken outside in cribs, toddlers walking hand-in-hand and clients of Jewish Community Services, an organization they turned to because of some kind of hardship.
The threats, thousands of which were received at Jewish institutions around the world and many in the Baltimore-Washington region, would not have been considered a hate crime in
Maryland. But a new law aims to change that by making the threat of a hate crime a criminal offense.
While the threat of a hate crime in that case turned out to be a complex hoax concocted by an Israeli teenager, if a reasonable person believes there is an imminent threat at the time of the threat being made, it would be considered a hate crime under this law.
Mersky recently testified in favor of the bill, sponsored in the House by Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41) and in the Senate by Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11). The bill was heard in the judiciary committees of both chambers. (Zirkin chairs the Senate committee.) Rosenberg called Mersky’s testimony “harrowing,” as she read email messages sent to the JCC that spoke of killing “the non-human Jewish children” first.
Mersky also spoke about the rise in hate bias incidents reported through Maryland State Police. There was a 40 percent increase in those numbers from 2015-2016 and a 35 percent increase from 2016-2017.
She said the memories of the JCC bomb threats hit home for her when she was out walking her dog and discovered KKK flyers in her South Baltimore neighborhood a few months ago.
“The first thing I thought was I have a mezuzah on my door, I should check my house,” she said.
The bill passed the Senate last year, but received an unfavorable rating in the House. With a new chair in the House judiciary committee, Rosenberg is optimistic it could pass this year.
It’s been a busy few weeks at the Maryland General Assembly for the BJC, Rosenberg and Zirkin as bills on Pimlico, Holocaust education and aging were introduced and heard. In Zirkin’s case, the Senate unanimously passed Grace’s Law 2.0, which updates Maryland’s cyberbullying bill, named for Grace McComas, who committed suicide in 2012 at age 15 after she was bullied online.
“That’s as significant a piece of legislation as I’ve been involved in in my 25 years,” he said. “That law needed updating in order for it to be at all effective.”
It’s been a busy few weeks at the Maryland General Assembly for the BJC, Rosenberg and Zirkin as bills on Pimlico, Holocaust education and aging were introduced and heard.
The House companion bill, sponsored by Del. Jon Cardin (D-District 11), also had its House hearing.
Under the current version of the law, the definition of electronic communication does not include social media platforms, and specifies that the communication has to be sent directly to a person, which does not take into account the impact an abuser could have posting something to their followers, as Zirkin explained. The current law also requires there to be a warning for the abuser to get in legal trouble.
“The idea that somebody could get out of it by not doing it a second time makes absolutely no sense,” he said.
The law also requires continuing contact, rather than taking into account single incidents. The new bill corrects these issues, Zirkin said.
“We expanded the definition of electronic communication to include all types of communication, including social media apps, we got rid of the need for the communication to be sent directly to the victim, and got rid of the need for there to be a continuing course of contact,” he said. The new law uses the terminology of a “single significant act,” language borrowed from Title IX.
Zirkin said the bill’s sole opposition is the ACLU, but claims that lawmakers are on “very firm constitutional grounds.”
The bill also includes the possibility of a “peace order for non-related parties,” which Zirkin described as an avenue for victims to go to court and obtain what is essentially an electronic restraining order.
After the Senate passed the bill unanimously, the legislators stood up and applauded two women watching from the gallery: Grace McComas’ mom, Christine, and Linda Diaz, the mother Lauryn Santiago, who also took her own life at age 15.
“This epidemic is not getting any better. It’s getting worse,” Zirkin said. “What that family went through, it’s unimaginable horror and pain. … and completely avoidable.”
The BJC also recently testified on a bill introduced by Sen. Ben Kramer (D-District 19) that would require Maryland’s public middle and high schools, as well as some private schools, to teach about the Holocaust and genocide.
In Northwest Baltimore, Rosenberg is a co-sponsor of legislation introduced by Del. Cheryl Glenn (D-District 45) that would create a workgroup to study how to finance the Maryland Stadium Authority’s proposal for redevelopment of Pimlico Race Course site. The proposal includes, among other measures, the building of a civic center to be used for events 51 weeks out of the year and as a clubhouse during the Preakness Stakes. Rosenberg said the proposal would not only keep Preakness at Pimlico, but turn the area into “a redevelopment jewel for the Northwest.”