Some 500 religious Jews crowded into a Potomac synagogue Sunday morning for kosher deli food and the opportunity to schmooze with 50 local elected officials and candidates — only two weeks before Maryland’s June 24 primaries.
The inaugural OU Advocacy-MD Legislative Breakfast, organized by the public policy arm of the New York-based Orthodox Union, took place at Potomac’s Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah. At the top of OU’s agenda: educational affordability and parity for nonpublic school students.
Maury Litwack, the organization’s director of state political affairs and outreach, said the No. 1 issue for his members is Jewish education. More than 3,000 children attend Jewish day schools in the D.C.-metro area, while more than 5,500 do so in Baltimore.
Other issues of importance to OU-Advocacy include transportation, universal pre-K education, special-needs funding, safety and security for Maryland’s Jewish day schools and synagogues through Department of Homeland Security grants, funding for secular textbooks for all nonpublic schools and passage of Maryland’s education tax-credit bill.
“This is an opportunity for elected officials to understand issues that we care about, and for community members to understand that the politicians are open to hearing about these issues,” Litwack told Washington Jewish Week.
Litwack said the OU has no problem with public funds going to senior-citizen homes or other social services. But some voters get offended by the concept of public assistance to private religious schools — if only to defray transportation costs for parents whose taxes support public schools even though their children don’t attend them.
“Vouchers are a four-letter word for most politicians,” he said. “If an elected official is not informed and we don’t do our due diligence, they will automatically jump to the conclusion that any form of funding to the Jewish community is vouchers. So you’ve got to start small.”
Last month, Montgomery County officials conducted a trial for the final two weeks of school at Rockville’s Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy, during which 207 students rode yellow county school buses. That took about 100 cars and minivans off the road.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett said he wants to expand that trial into “a full-scale system that is right for our parents and our schools.”
Leggett, who received a loud round of applause upon his introduction, said that in his native Louisiana, parishes — which are equivalent to counties — already do many of these things.
“And that’s what we should be doing here. Think about the impact to families,” he said. “This is about fairness. It’s long overdue, and I’m glad we have over 50 elected officials to hear this.
“Many others feel the same way,” he continued. “Hopefully you will continue your advocacy and move beyond a pilot to something we can be proud of, and put this issue behind us once and for all.”
Silver Spring resident Sam Melamed, a lay leader with OU Advocacy-MD Leadership, said the average Jewish private school tuition in Montgomery County runs $15,000 to $20,000 per child — a huge expense for middle-class families like his own.
“It’s important that we have a chance to convey to these politicians the pain that families feel,” he explained.
Other speakers at the Potomac breakfast included Nathan Diament, the OU’s executive director for public policy; local delegate Anne Kaiser, chair of the Montgomery County House Delegation; and Craig Rice, president of the Montgomery County Council. U.S. Rep. John Delaney, a Democrat representing Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, was scheduled to speak but canceled for personal reasons.
Roger Berliner, a member of the Montgomery County Council who’s running for re-election, told Washington Jewish Week following the breakfast that private school transportation is an urgent priority for a number of his Jewish constituents.
“It’s not an inconsequential issue,” said the politician, whose District 1 covers Bethesda, Garrett Park and Chevy Chase. “About a year ago, I met with leaders of the Orthodox Jewish community. That community has said to me, ‘We’d be prepared to change our school hours if we could have a surplus bus from the school system.’ I think we can build off that pilot program. It will change peoples’ lives.”
Six months ago, he said, the OU gave its Maryland chapter seed money to hire Karen Paikin Barall as the advocacy group’s mid-Atlantic regional director.
“When Karen goes to Rockville and Annapolis to lobby on our behalf and advocate for our schools, we want every legislator to see not only this sea of 500 faces behind her, but also the thousands of other people who were not able to make this event,” said Melamed.
Larry Luxner is a Washington-based freelance writer.