Closing The Cultural Divide

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Gabe Pickus and Ras Tre Subira lead the Olam Ubuntu youth group. (Kelsey Marden)

Samantha Saunders, 14, was looking for a sort of cultural exchange when she joined the youth group Olam Ubuntu, a program that brings Jewish and African-American adolescents together.

“I heard from a friend that Olam Ubuntu was a black Jewish leadership group, and that sounded interesting to me because I’m both,” Saunders said. “I wanted to join to see what it was like. Meeting a lot of new people has been one of my favorite parts. On my first field trip, we went around West Baltimore, and we saw where Freddie Gray was [arrested].”


The program, founded by Baltimoreans-via-Chicago Ras Tre Subira and Gabe Pickus, unites Jewish and African-American youth between ages 12 and 15 for a curriculum that aims to build a foundation for social justice and actions in tweens and teens.

Both of the educators’ welcoming, warm demeanors are perfect for working with young people as was evident on a recent “Toxic Tour” in East Baltimore and at one of its twice- weekly meetings at Beth Am Synagogue. Pickus, 30, who is Jewish, can usually be seen wearing his newsboy-style cap, while Subira, 40, who is African-American, tucks his long dreadlocks into a Rasta-style tam.

“Ras Tre and Gabe are cool people to have as role models,” Saunders said. “You get to hear two different perspectives on the same topic.”

The name of the group reflects its mission. The word “olam” comes from the Hebrew phrase “tikkun olam” (repair the world), and “ubuntu” is derived from a South African philosophy meaning, “I am because we are.” Subira, a photographer, videographer and linguist who speaks multiple African languages, says the program looks to “[create] a world where ‘I am because we are.’”

“What I hope for these young people is some activism,” Subira said. “For them to see themselves as not just passive people on the sidelines as the city and life progress, but rather as agents who are shaping their current reality and future of the city. I hope they also take away an appreciation for cultural identity and the role it plays in the psyche of a person.”

Pickus and Subira were presented with the idea for Olam Ubuntu in late 2016 by In For Of, a nonprofit made up of members of Beth Am and the surrounding community of Reservoir Hill. Pickus came onboard first and then reached out to Subira. The pair met years ago during a Capoeira Angola martial arts class.

Gabe Pickus, one of the group leaders of Olam Ubuntu. (Kelsey Marden)

“Gabe knew my background with cultural education and brought me in as co-facilitator,” Subira said. “We did a pilot program last year from January through May. This is our first full school year of the work.”

Pickus is quick to acknowledge that Baltimore’s Reservoir Hill neighborhood, which is home to Beth Am, is majority African-American.

“This is a concerted effort to be more sustained as a context for integration between Jewish and African-American communities,” he said. “Especially in light of the fact that we’re standing in Beth Am, which is a huge, beautiful building in the middle of a black neighborhood, that is underutilized as a community resource.”

Interestingly, Pickus calls the program “a critique of tikkun olam projects.”

“Tikkun olam projects have become increasingly one-and-done interactions as opposed to sustained investment in social justice over a long period of time through relationship building,” he said. “IFO is making huge strides with programs like Olam Ubuntu, along with other community outreach events, to build a bridge between Jewish members of Beth Am and black community members of Reservoir Hill.”

Beth Am’s rabbi, Daniel Burg, agrees.

“We, through IFO, are constantly asking ourselves how can we honestly confront and embody the character of our neighborhood, past and present?” Burg said via email. “How can we respond to the needs of our congregants and neighbors alike through the lens of Jewish values? Olam Ubuntu is an attempt to answer those questions.”

As part of its approach, Olam Ubuntu takes field trips around the city, hoping to plant the seeds of social justice in the participants’ communities. The “Toxic Tour,” run by activist and longtime Baltimorean Glenn Ross, took group members through East Baltimore sites that have been overlooked by the city and now pose potential health hazards.

“I’ve been doing this work for years,” said Ross, who is running as the Green Party’s candidate for state delegate of the 45th District. “Many of us over 40 are stuck in our ways, and we’re not going to change. It’s the young people, [they’re] our future. There’s a serious health problem about living in this environment. Most of these community leaders have died because of the environment they live in.”

By exposing Olam Ubuntu’s young members to some of the harsher realities of Baltimore, Subira and Pickus hope to awaken them to the possibilities of how they can enact change on their own terms.

“Sometimes learning about another’s [background] makes you learn about yourself and your own cultural legacy,” Subira said, “Taking the knowledge we expose them to [might help them] right the wrongs they see in their worlds.”

Ras Tre Subira, one of the leaders of Olam Ubuntu. (Kelsey Marden)

Future Leaders

Pickus, who works as a hand percussionist among other jobs, says another goal of the group is to teach the kids about the power of art and perhaps turn them into future leaders.

“They have an increasing voice and choice in the process and the implementation of the program as the year progresses,” he said. “They love using different forms of media, whether it’s the camera or poetry or art. We create a space for young participants to use their passions as tools for social change. We try to light their social justice and educational fire. They keep it burning from there; we help them find more fuel as needed.”

So far, the kids have indeed kept their interest “burning.” In the group’s second year, they look forward to seeing each other every week.

“I’ve really enjoyed learning about Baltimore, because I think of it as a small city that has a lot of stuff happening, and I thought I knew everything,” said Anu Jinadu, 13, a student at the Unselds’ School who was also part of Olam Ubuntu last year. “I’ve been learning more about the city. We also have a lot of fun. We get to get away from the home stuff and work more on leadership.”

When asked whether she would take the lessons she learned from Olam Ubuntu moving forward, Mercedes Rabb, 14, said, “Yes, definitely.”

“I think in high school I’ll get more involved [with local politics],” she added. “I think poor neighborhoods shouldn’t always be poor and at least get good housing.”

Foundation for Action

A passion for activism courses through Pickus’ and Subira’s veins. For Pickus, it all began when he attended Camp Tavor in Michigan, a program run by the North American Chapter of the Jewish Labour Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror.

“I was introduced to Shabbat and kashrut, along with countless other aspects of Judaism for the first time when I was going into sixth grade,” Pickus said. “I was introduced to socialism, Zionism and alternative education. These ideas were all wrapped up in my Jewish identity.”

Pickus is still deeply involved with Habonim Dror. He regularly hosts or joins gatherings on his block in the city for Shabbat and holidays and is a part of meditation gatherings and song circles (among other activities) that “span from Pearlstone Center to Fells Point.” Many of the Jews who join these groups are involved in activist organizations such as Jews United for Justice, Pickus notes.

Pickus says that while his Jewish family tried to assimilate (“partially for convenience, partially for survival”), his goal is to “unassimilate.”

A group discussion held during an Olam Ubuntu meeting at Beth Am Synagogue. (Kelsey Marden)

“I recognize the complexity of my Jewish identity, especially here, now in America,” he said. “Rather than live into the convenience of my white privilege, my goal is to live into that which makes me different. I want to live a life proud of being Jewish in the way that I think is most moral, responsible and relevant.”

What’s Next?

With just one year under their belts, Subira and Pickus already are looking at where the program can go. An opportunity recently arose for the pair to join Congressman Elijah Cummings’ Youth Leadership Trip to Israel.

“That says to me that there is a larger desire or interest in having intercultural exchange between young Jewish and black peoples like this,” Subira said. “I know that there are plenty Jewish rites-of-passage programs like bar or bat mitzvahs. In most African-American communities, I don’t think we have those same structures explicitly. But I do think that for both, it’s an opportunity to take this path into adulthood while in the context of cultural identity in relation to another.”

Subira called Baltimore “the perfect community” for Olam Ubuntu.

“The city has a large African- American population, and it has a very strong history of the Jewish American settlements and transitions,” he said. “I think we’re being in tune with the story of this place. I feel like every city has a story, and the narrative is powerful. I feel like we’re honoring the narrative that was here before us, and now we’re shining some light on it.”

Pickus agreed: “Especially since Baltimore has such a high percentage of Jewish and black people and since they live in close proximity to each other, it makes sense to work together.”

He also believes the program can also connect Jews to one another. “We can help unite across Jewish communities as well,” he said. “There’s a lot of conflict between and within Jewish communities.”

In thinking about the work of bridging the gap, Pickus quoted Jeremiah in Pirkei Avot who said, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

“It behooves us to pay attention to those who are bearing the brunt of the problems facing our city and actually work with them,” Pickus added. “Not to come down and tell them what they need, but actually build relationships with them and work together for a better city and world. It’s not our job alone to fix the world. We have to work with others, and we have to keep working — for an Olam Ubutu.”

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for highlighting this program. One of the difficulties has been recruiting Jewish kids. Hopefully, this article will help.

    Betty Chemers
    Program founder
    IFO and Beth Am Board member

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