Jewish community leaders stake out priorities in Annapolis

Maryland state Sen. Cheryl Kagan campaigns with then-gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore in 2022
Photo courtesy of Cheryl Kagan

Ensuring security funding for communal sites and enhancing hate crime law amid a rash of antisemitic graffiti episodes are high on Maryland Jewish communal leaders’ legislative  wish-lists, as turnover in the Annapolis political scene brings the first Democratic governor in eight years.

Jewish community leaders have a long to-do list as lawmakers convene in Annapolis over the next two-and-a-half months. Many were priorities during Hogan’s administration, and the issues’ urgency has only grown.

“Our priority is making sure the Jewish community feels secure in schools, childcare centers and houses of worship,” said Deborah Miller, director of Maryland government and community relations for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

State-level synagogue and school safety grants will be a top priority, though that traditionally comes more through federal funds. Jewish communal site security has been a key concern for leaders nationally, even before the shootings at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018 during Saturday morning Shabbat services claimed the lives of 11 people, with six more wounded.

It’s a heightened concern in Maryland as antisemitic graffiti continues to appear across local communities.

In December, graffiti reading “Jews Not Welcome” was discovered spray-painted on a sign outside Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. The week before, Bethesda’s Trolley Trail, a popular walking and bike route that cuts through a swath of Bethesda neighborhoods, was also vandalized. And just last week anti-Jewish graffiti appeared on the campuses of three Montgomery County schools.

One legislative proposal would authorize state hate crime victims to bring civil lawsuits against perpetrators. Punishments could be criminal as well as financial, depending on how the bill moves through the legislative process.

Lawmakers said one issue they’re eyeing is whether more can be done on Holocaust education.

“Unlike other states, we don’t have a mandate for Holocaust education,” said Democratic state Del. Marc Korman, the new majority leader in the House of Delegates. That in a state with the nation’s fifth-highest Jewish population, at about 3.9%, according to Jewish Virtual Library.

Lawmakers are in the early stages of poring over the $63.1 billion proposed state budget by Gov. Moore, said Korman, whose district includes the Bethesda and Chevy Chase areas.

While line item specifics are still to be worked out, Korman said, strong funding can again be expected for the Maryland/Israel Development Center, which promotes investment  between the Old Line State and Israeli companies.

“We do have a somewhat unique economic development relationship with Israel, through the state Department of Commerce.” Korman said. “We fund and support that every year.”

Democratic state Del. Kirill Reznik, whose district includes parts of North Potomac, Darnestown, Germantown and Montgomery Village, tied Jewish community issues to those of the broader Maryland electorate.

“The concerns of the Jewish community are the same as everyone else. We want to send our children to good schools, make sure small businesses can grow. We care about all of the same things everybody else cares about,” Reznick said.

Those priorities will be easier with a fellow Democrat in the governorship, Reznik said. Technically, it won’t have a big effect on the odds of enactment or failure of legislation.  Maryland is so deeply blue — in 2020 President Joe Biden beat former President Donald Trump there by a nearly 2-1 margin  that state lawmakers often could simply override Hogan vetoes.

But that didn’t always work. Hogan, for instance, last year successfully vetoed a bill, sponsored by state Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D), aimed at improving voting and ballot counting. The measure would have given local election officials more time to count mail-in ballots ahead of Election Day. And it would have allowed people to make sure their votes were counted even if they forgot to sign an absentee ballot envelope.

Kagan, representing the Rockville and Gaithersburg areas, said she is thrilled to be working with Moore. After all, she was the first legislator to endorse him outside of Baltimore City, his political home base, in a crowded 2022 Democratic primary field.

“I think he’s going to get a lot of national attention for the innovative policies he’s going to be enacting,” Kagan said.

Having Moore in office, combined with Trump’s 2020 defeat, will mean a more positive political environment in Maryland, which in turn can tamp down hate expressed in the graffiti incidents, Kagan said.

“A part of targeted hate comes from culture, and a part comes from ignorance. And,  unfortunately, from some political leaders,” she said. “I think Donald Trump set a tone that we are still struggling with and recovering from. I think Gov. Moore will set a tone of inclusion and respect.”