There is no one staffing the Orthodox Union’s Maryland Advocacy office now that the new legislative session in Annapolis is underway.
The position of regional director, the organization’s only full-time staff position dedicated to Maryland issues, was eliminated Dec. 31.
Maury Litwack, director of state political affairs for OU Advocacy Center, confirmed no one has been hired to replace Karen Barall, the former regional director. The Maryland office is undergoing a restructuring, but Litwack would not elaborate about organizational changes. He said that the OU Advocacy operates in other states, like Florida and Nebraska, without a full-time staff member.
Through its Washington office, OU Advocacy will continue “to work on issues important to Maryland and Montgomery County,” Litwack added.
Barall said that she was told that the Maryland legislature was a difficult one to work with when it came to providing funding for Jewish days schools — a top OU priority — and that the OU’s national office believed its money should be diverted to where there would be a greater return on investment.
“I just feel the OU pulled the plug prematurely, but agreed with their projection that short-term wins in Montgomery County were unlikely,” Barall said.
Chief among OU Advocacy’s Maryland priorities is securing public funding for nonpublic school children. A pilot program that allowed students from three Jewish day schools, two Catholic schools and one nonsectarian school to ride Montgomery County public school buses to and from classes was placed on hold last spring.
Efforts to pass the Building Opportunities for All Students and Teachers program, which is supported by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, have been fruitless. The bill, if passed, would grant businesses a state income tax credit for part of their donations to scholarship organizations that benefit nonpublic school students. Donations to teachers in public and nonpublic schools for professional development would also be eligible for tax credits under the program.
OU Advocacy, according to Litwack, has been lobbying for the passage of this bill for a decade. Florida and Pennsylvania fund nonpublic schools through programs similar to that proposed in Maryland.
Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, called it “unfortunate” that the OU decided to close its Maryland office.
“We found them to be valuable allies,” he said. “While we are saddened to see the OU office closed, we are totally prepared to step in and provide leadership.”
The JCRC’s mission is to look out for the needs of the entire Jewish community, as long as those needs don’t interfere with the separation of church and state, he added.
“The JCRC has worked in tandem and in concert with the Orthodox community for many years,” and will continue to do so. “Ninety percent of the time, we are there with that segment of the community.”
The JCRC advocates for private tuition tax credits, homeland security grants for synagogues and busing for day school students.
Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, Agudath Israel’s Maryland director, said the OU’s closing of its Maryland advocacy office will not affect his efforts to fight for the Orthodox community.
While the OU primarily focused on obtaining financial help for Jewish day schools, his office is involved in “a wide array” of issues, he said.
“Maryland is a state where the public school community is very strong,” he added, pointing to the teachers’ unions, boards of education and parent teacher associations that tend to view government funding of nonpublic schools with suspicion.
Nonpublic schools in Maryland receive a total of $9.6 million from the state through the state’s aging schools grants and its textbook and technology programs. Most of those grants are small, said Sadwin, averaging between $12,000 and $48,000.