By Charles Hansler, staff writer, @CharlieHansler
More than 100 students participated in Maryland Hillel’s Good Deeds Day on March 1.
Good Deeds Day is an international celebration of service that businesswoman and philanthropist Shari Arison started in Israel in 2007. The international date of the event is March 15, but students held the day of service early because of spring break.
Participants volunteered at Washington nonprofits and attended panel discussions sponsored by Hillel, said Amy Weiss, Hillel director of service learning initiatives.
The first Maryland Hillel Good Deeds Day panel discussion focused on the juvenile justice system. Charlie Kurtis and Sherman Justice from Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop spoke at the panel about their time in juvenile correctional facilities.
Kurtis and Justice work for Free Minds, an organization that sends young juvenile inmates books, letters and encourages them to tap into their literary side by having them send back poems they write.
Sherman, who served five years in prison before moving to Washington, called his experience “the worst five years of my life.” He said Free Minds helped him adjust to daily life when he left the juvenile correction system. He spoke at length about getting minority communities more involved in area elections and in shaping politics.
“What I’m doing is having a National Black Men and Boy Day on the Hill, in the nation’s capital. Basically, it’s going to be about going from protest to policy,” Sherman said.
At this event, black men and teenagers will present to the Congressional Black Caucus and other lawmakers about issues that are important to them, such as reducing recidivism and promoting better employment opportunities for black men and teenagers living in the D.C. area, Sherman said.
But raising awareness through hearings and outreach is not enough, he said.
“It’s nice having conversations, but what about coming up with some concrete solutions to confront all these issues that are important to us?” he said.
Senior international business major Jared Stein, who is helping to lead a spring break trip to perform community service in New Orleans, said he found the Free Minds discussion interesting and a relevant topic for his upcoming trip because New Orleans has a high rate of incarcerated youth.
“They have really unique perspectives on the issue that we definitely don’t get to hear about on our college campus. It’s not often you get to hear from people who have been through the criminal justice system,” he said.
Fifteen students attended the Free Minds session, which was followed by a lecture by Shelley Gilbert. Gilbert, a Coast Guard veteran from the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), shared her experience of being a homeless mother of two.
Gilbert said her family became homeless after she ran into financial problems. She has since gained access to affordable housing through government aid from the Veterans Administration.
Throughout the day-long event, shifts of volunteers traveled into Washington neighborhoods for various volunteering and service events at organizations including Yachad and the DC Central Kitchen. Weiss said the mix of panel discussions and volunteer opportunities gave students a deeper context to the idea of community service.
“We really wanted to volunteer in the communities, but we also wanted to put a face to some of the issues that we deal with on a long-term basis so that people can have an encounter with affected communities and put a face to the problem,” Weiss said.
Good Deeds Day is a manifestation of the importance of charity in Hillel’s values, Weiss said.
“Good Deeds Day, the international entity, it’s all coming from the idea of tzedakah, and chesed, and acts of loving kindness that are all in the Torah,” she said. “For us at Maryland Hillel, we believe social justice is a pillar of the Jewish people.”