Advocacy amid chaos in Richmond

Jewish advocacy in Richmond this week was to include religion and state issues, combating bias, criminal justice reform and Jewish community issues, the JCRC said. Wikimedia Commons.

With Richmond in chaos Tuesday over the disclosure of racist photographs on Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page, volunteer advocates from the Washington Jewish community were preparing to travel to the capital the following day to meet political leaders and lobby for community goals.

According to Darcy Hirsh, director of Virginia government relations for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, which organizes the annual advocacy day, the group’s meetings with Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) and Attorney General Mark Herring (D) were in the process of being cancelled.

“Given the uncertainty among the executive branch, those meetings are changing,” Hirsh said, adding that the group will still meet with 40 legislators. “But that certainly doesn’t take away from our job that day, which is to advocate on our priorities.”

While the group was firm in its priorities, at press time it had no position on the question that Virginians — and the country — were debating: Should Northam resign? JCRC Executive Director Ron Halber did not respond to several phone calls on the subject.

Virginia priorities

Hirsh said JCRC’s Virginia advocacy breaks down into four main categories: religion and state issues, combating bias, criminal justice reform and Jewish community issues.

For starters, the JCRC is looking to beat back a second consecutive attempt to allow guns in houses of worship. A bill sponsored by state Sen. Richard Black (R-District 13) passed the Senate on a party-line vote, so it is now under consideration in the House of Delegates, where similar legislation died in committee last year. Northam has pledged to veto the legislation if it gets to his desk.

In another effort to affirm the separation between church and state, Hirsh said the JCRC will lobby against a bill to require public schools to offer a Bible study elective. In the House of Delegates, a bill sponsored by Del. Charles Carrico (R-District 40) would mandate that public high schools offer study of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) as an elective.

“It’s a clear establishment clause violation because it’s biased in favor of Christianity and Judaism,” Hirsh said.

Under the banner of combating bias, the group is hoping to defeat a Republican bill to preemptively restrict any municipality from declaring itself a “sanctuary city” in which local law enforcement would not cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Advocates will also lobby for bills that would outlaw discrimination against the LGBTQ community in public employment and housing.

On criminal justice, the group is backing a bill to increase reporting and transparency on the use of solitary confinement in Virginia state prisons. Hirsh also said volunteers will also be talking to legislators in support of Northam’s proposal to stop the revocation of driver’s licenses over unpaid court fees and fines.

And volunteers with the JCRC will talk to representatives about the work of the Virginia-Israel Advisory Board, and will support a bill that would recognize the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Preparing for Annapolis

The JCRC will head to the Maryland State House in Annapolis on Feb. 20 with three main priorities: security funding for houses of worships and schools, beefing up hate crimes laws, making Holocaust education mandatory statewide and strengthening domestic violence legislation, according to Meredith Weisel, the JCRC’s director of Maryland Government Relations.

The security funding would come from two pots totaling $5 million for houses of worship, schools and other buildings. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan included $3 million in his fiscal year 2020 budget proposal for a grant for houses of worship regardless of religious affiliation.

In addition, he appropriated $2 million for The Schools and Child Cares Center — State Grant Program, which would go to security improvements for at-risk schools and child care centers, like those operated by synagogues. Hogan allocated $2 million for the program in his 2019 budget as well, but the legislature cut it to $1 million.

Weisel said that requests from schools came in for $2 million, so if the General Assembly wants to meet the need, it should keep the governor’s proposal intact.

“[Security] is clearly something that’s very important to the Jewish community and to the entire faith community,” Weisel said. “The fact that $2 million came in in requests and they couldn’t grant everyone the full amounts, I think that gives a little more leverage.”

The JCRC is hoping that the legislature will toughen hate crimes laws in two ways. First, Del. Samuel Rosenberg (D-District 41) has sponsored a bill that would make threatening to commit a hate crime a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine.

“When the JCCs and Jewish day schools received the bomb threats, that actually is not considered a hate crime,” Weisel said, referring to a wave of bomb threats that hit Maryland Jewish institutions in February 2017. “A threat to do something can’t actually be a hate crime under the way the statute is written now.”

The threats came from an American-Israeli who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in Israel.

Meanwhile, in the state Senate, Sen. Benjamin Kramer (D-District 19) is sponsoring legislation making hate crime victims eligible to pursue damages in civil court.

Finally, the JCRC is putting its support behind an effort to make Holocaust education mandatory in public schools across the state. Weisel pointed to polls showing a decline in Holocaust awareness among younger Americans as a justification.

She said, “More and more Holocaust survivors are passing away, and we really need to make sure it’s being taught in
the schools.”

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