With reported acts of anti-Semitism on the rise in Maryland and across the nation, dozens of leading state politicians gathered at a synagogue in Potomac Friday morning, expressing their solidarity with the Jewish community and embracing the expansive policy agenda of a Jewish advocacy group.
The annual legislative breakfast of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC), billed as an opportunity to “schmooze and nosh,” is traditionally a popular event with elected officials. But due to COVID-19, Friday was the first in-person JCRC political breakfast in three years. And the rising incidents of anti-Semitic rhetoric and vandalism added a heightened sense of urgency and gravity to the gathering, even though there were plenty of humorous moments.
The A-list lineup of speakers included the state’s two U.S. senators, U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D), Gov.-elect Wes Moore (D), Lt. Gov.-elect Aruna Miller (D), Comptroller-elect Brooke Lierman (D), Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D), Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D), and assorted other local officials. The official speaking program lasted well over two hours, and that was on top of 45 minutes worth of pregame schmoozing. The crowd of over 200 thinned considerably as the program wore on.
“Good morning! Is it still morning?” Lierman said as she began her speech.
On the one hand, there were plenty of light-hearted moments, like when U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D) talked about how happy he was to have a bagel and lox breakfast “with our mishpocha” again and teased Raskin about being “the teacher” in the state’s congressional delegation.
But on the other hand, several speakers talked about the rising tide of anti-Semitism and racism in the country. It was lost on no one that Congregation Har Shalom, where the breakfast took place, was surrounded by police cars all morning and that several police officers were standing at strategic places in the synagogue’s large hall.
Deborah Miller, the JCRC’s director of Maryland government and community relations, said that 85% of faith-based hate crimes in Montgomery County are directed at Jews, even though Jews only make up 10% of the county’s population.
“Many of us are on edge and afraid,” said Rabbi Adam Raskin — no relation to the congressman — of Congregation Har Shalom. “The spike of anti-Semitism in this state and in this country is terrifying.”
Moore, who will become the state’s first Black governor, sought to draw links between Jews and the Black community — and he wasn’t alone.
“When we talk about the dual evils of anti-Semitism and racism, let’s not try to think about them as two separate things,” he said.
Cardin said the U.S. needs “a national unified strategy to fight the rise of anti-Semitism.”
The JCRC is a potent political force in the State House and the Washington, D.C., region, and Friday’s breakfast was a reminder of both the group’s political influence and its lengthy and substantive policy agenda. The JCRC doesn’t just advocate for Jewish interests, but also for an array of social service programs, criminal justice reforms and other good works.
“At the JCRC, we know we can count on our elected officials to implement policies that reflect our values, our Jewish values,” Deborah Miller said.
During his speech, Cardin waved the program, with three pages’ worth of policy priorities, and said, “We’re all for this.”
For some members of the audience, it was a first opportunity to listen to and take stock of Moore, who takes office on Jan. 18. Moore said he felt like he was among family in a room full of people of faith.
“I’m a child of God,” he said. “I know where my strength comes from.”
Moore told the crowd about his grandfather fleeing the U.S. for Jamaica with his family after being menaced by the Ku Klux Klan. He later returned to the U.S., saying “this country will be incomplete without me,” and went on to become the first Black minister in the history of the Dutch Reformed Church.
Moore vowed to enforce and strengthen state hate crime laws, and also praised Deborah Miller and Ronald Halber, the director of the JCRC.
“Bless you for your leadership,” he said. “It’s not just that we have a stronger organization for your leadership. We have a stronger state for your leadership.”
Moore was rewarded with a standing ovation, the second of the morning — the first went to Jamie Raskin, who recounted being at a food-free White House reception earlier this week and thinking that the country needs a Jewish president.
Friday’s breakfast was also an opportunity for outreach for Alsobrooks, who may be a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2024. Alsobrooks told a hushed room about her family’s decision to flee South Carolina in 1954 after her great-grandfather was shot to death by a sheriff’s deputy. She noted that her grandparents and parents became civil rights activists, and often worked side by side with Jewish allies.
“Growing up, it was conveyed to me in no uncertain terms that the Jewish community was with us every step of the way,” he said. “…Everything the Jewish people wanted for their children, they showed up to work alongside my parents to make sure that I would have those rights.”