Betsy Singer Marcus is the chair of the recently-founded Jewish Community Relations Council at the Jewish Federation of Howard County. Betsy and other JCRC members work together with community and government leaders to foster understanding and advocate for the Jewish community.
Can you describe what the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) is?
The JCRC is the community relations arm of the Jewish Federation of Howard County. The JCRC includes members appointed by every local synagogue and members-at-large to represent the interests of our Jewish community while building relationships with local religious, civic, and government leaders. We want the opportunity to not only to engage with other leaders but also share with them our needs and aspirations as a Jewish community.
What is your role at the JCRC?
As JCRC Chair, I work with other members of the council to strategize ways to improve our outreach to the general community and strengthen those relationships for our mutual benefit. I see my role as leading our agenda and bringing opportunities to the council for discussion and action.
What are some initiatives the JCRC is currently working on?
After a recent incident at a Howard County public school where a student was harassed for being Jewish, we met with HCPSS (Howard County Public School System) staff to strengthen policies that will empower parents, faculty, administrators – and especially students -- to respond to incidents of hate or harassment within the school system. We’re advocating for policies that protect students from being victims of bullying or hate because of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity. A member of JCRC now sits on the new HCPSS Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
We’ve also provided additional curricula for Holocaust education and anti-bias programs at HCPSS so we can help educate young people about the history of anti-Semitism and help them understand why it’s wrong.
Another example is our work with the Operational Preparedness Unit at the Howard County Police Department. We want to be in close contact with them to promote security and safety issues for our local congregations.
What motivated you to become involved in the JCRC?
It was the incident at Charlottesville. The rally and tragic murder of an innocent young woman really shocked me. So, although I’d recently completed my term on the Federation board, I felt compelled to work with the Federation, which had sown the seeds for a new JCRC at the time. I wanted to take a leadership role in establishing a JCRC to address anti-Semitism, racism, and other issues and to strengthen how we best work together with the support of the larger Howard County community.
Why is the JCRC such a good fit for Federation?
The Federation in Howard County has a long history of social service and community-building through its annual campaign and variety of programs for all ages. It provides an excellent framework for the JCRC as it seeks to build ties in the broader community. Everything the Federation does is within the umbrella of our Jewish values, so when the JCRC works with the Federation, we strengthen not only our reach to the community but also our connection to those values. By the way, our new JCRC is one of over 125 nation-wide, almost all of which are committees of their local Federations.
You have extensive experience volunteering with non-profits like the League of Women Voters and HoCo Climate Action. Why is your work at the Federation, particularly, so important to you?
The Federation is different from the other organizations I’ve worked with because it focuses on social service and the religious aspects of our faith. The Jewish community’s values reinforce justice and caring for others, especially vulnerable populations like children, the elderly, and low-income families.
These are values we want to share with other people. And we also want to explain and clarify our traditions to the broader community and correct misconceptions. As a Jew by choice, I know how strange things can seem to people who haven’t been raised Jewish. For instance, many people are confused by the Hebrew terms we use. We know what tzedakah means, we know what Chanukah is about, but people of other faiths or cultures may not. What we do when we celebrate Passover can be a mystery to many, but if we can explain the meaning of holidays and practices, it helps others understand why they are important to us when, for instance, we are advocating for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as days off on the school calendar.
Similarly, when we explain what we mean when we say “tikkun olam,” repair the world, people “get it” and are impressed by the fact that Jews take responsibility for the world and not just our own community.
What Jewish value is most important to you in your work?
The one that I’ve always looked to first is tikkun olam. That is a value that comes to the fore frequently. For example, everything we do in the community to respond to and prevent incidents of anti-Semitism and hate works toward repairing the world and preventing future disaster.
What is your favorite Jewish holiday?
Tu Bishvat. I wish that it was a more popular holiday. I like trees, and I’ve had hundreds of trees planted at Temple Isaiah, where my husband, Bob, and I belong. Trees provide shade and protection, they soak up carbon dioxide, and they are beautiful.
What do you like to do for fun?
Visit family! I just got back from Seattle where we spent Thanksgiving with my son and his family, and then headed out to see my mother-in-law in West Palm Beach. And if it wouldn’t be that, I’d be visiting my sister in New Orleans or family in New Jersey!
You can reach Betsy at firstname.lastname@example.org.