More than 200 Maryland Jews gathered in Annapolis last week for the state’s annual Jewish Advocacy Day, as constituents lobbied legislators for measures they hope to see passed in the current session, which runs through April 11.
Participants included members of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and Baltimore Jewish Council, both of which support legislation on disability rights, harassment and universal voter registration.
In the District 11 meeting, state Dels. Shelly Hettleman (D) and Dan Morhaim (D) made brief appearances.
“Your being here is helpful,” Hettleman said. “Your writing to us, your calling us, your letting us know about what is important is incredibly important.”
Morhaim echoed those sentiments and directed part of his encouragement at a boy sitting in the front of the room.
“If you’d like to come down to testify in Annapolis you don’t have to be 18, you don’t have to be a citizen, you don’t have to be a lobbyist, all you have to be is patient and wait your turn. But we will listen to you,” he said.
Michael Friedman, vice president of the JCRC, said Jewish Advocacy Day is a key event in ensuring that the voice of the Jewish community is heard in government.
“When we turn out in force, we allow our legislators to know that what happens in Annapolis is important to us, that we’re paying attention and that we want to make sure that the needs of our community our met,” he said.
Madeline Suggs, the BJC’s director of public affairs, said constituent meetings are a critical component of the effort.
“Even though a lot of our constituents are meeting with their local legislators while they’re at home, there’s a huge power in numbers in Annapolis, and to get a huge group coming down to Annapolis [and] talking about what’s important to them really has a powerful effect to make sure the legislation gets passed,” she said.
Among the legislation the two organizations pushed for was a bill to widen the definition of stalking and harassment to anything intended to cause “serious emotional distress to another.” The current law considers stalking only when there is “malicious” intent.
Members of the Counseling Helpline & Aid Network for Abused Women, known as CHANA, a Baltimore-based Jewish organization that responds to domestic abuse, were on hand at the District 11 delegation meeting to press their case for the bill.
“The key part of the stalking bill that really has been of most importance has really been to add a component of seeing serious emotional distress as harm that would elevate this to a crime,” said Lauren Shavitz, program director of CHANA. “So what we see is that oftentimes people who are victims of stalking might not have issues that rise to the level of what the current law has said.”
Shavitz said that the bill is important because it seeks to dispel the notion that a victim of stalking or harassment must have a serious injury or constantly be living in fear in order to receive protection under the law.
“It’s not always the typical stalking behavior that people think of where there’s someone lurking behind the bushes and then jumps out and might attack or scare them,” she said.
BJC director of government relations Sarah Mersky added that the bill is a priority because both CHANA and BJC are both agencies of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
The BJC and JCRC also advocated for the Able Act, which allows states to establish a tax-advantaged savings program that would allow eligible people with disabilities to set up a separate account earmarked for qualified health-related expenses such as medical or dental care, transportation and housing, without losing Medicaid or Social Security benefits.
Currently if a person with disabilities holds more than $2,000 in assets they would not qualify. The Able Act is similar to the college savings program some families participate in. BJC board member Elizabeth Green, an attorney who specializes in estate planning, said creating a savings fund is key to the success of this population.
“The biggest piece of what those with disabilities need is health insurance,” she said. “If they could get health insurance without paying for other things that they need to pay for, then they could put aside savings for other things. But unfortunately they’re all tied together.”
Ron Halber, JCRC executive director, said his agency also pushed for a bill sponsored by Del. Andrew Platt (D-District 17) that would grant an individual Holocaust survivor a $2,000 tax credit if his or her retirement income is less than $100,000, and a $4,000 tax credit if both members of a couple are survivors. It would take effect July 1 if it passes during this session.
Halber said the advocacy event is a clear example of how strength in numbers can make an impact.
“You get 400 people in a room in Annapolis and say these issues are of concern to the Jewish community — that is a very important mobilization,” he said.