Gabrielle Elkaim, 37, grew up in Zimbabwe, a country of fewer than 1,000 Jews.
She moved to the United States for college and, about a decade ago, found her way to Baltimore, where she now lives in Charles Village and works in Medicare and Medicaid.
This year, she decided she would spend Christmas driving around Baltimore, handing out socks, blankets and soup to homeless people. Earlier this month, she put out some calls on social media asking people to donate to her distribution drive. Her dining room table is now covered with items she plans to give out.
What is the Jewish community like in Zimbabwe?
I would say it’s a pretty traditional community. The idea of denominations of Judaism was very foreign to me when I came [to the U.S.]. There were people who were Orthodox in my community and people who were sort of the equivalent of Reform, but our community was so small that it was one community. I don’t think that there are customs that are Zimbabwean Jewish customs, but it was a very active community, partly based on how small it was. My dad was on the Jewish burial society; that might not have happened with a huge community.
Is there anything you would like to share about the community?
Most of the Zimbabwean Jewish community came from Eastern Europe. A lot of them went to South Africa, and South Africa had met its Jewish quota at the time. This is what happened with my great-grandparents. My great-grandparents went from Lithuania to Zambia in the latter part of the 1920s. On the other side of my family, my grandfather’s uncle went from Palestine to Africa to find work. He arrived in South Africa, and they had met their Jewish quota, so they kept sending them north.
What does your Jewish identity mean to you?
For me, while there is doing associated with it, it’s more of a being. There’s a strong cultural identity for me, but I also think that it’s something I find and identify with a lot of the time when I meet other Jews, and just the sense of tikkun olam. It’s part of our core, to make a difference when we can.
Many years ago, my dad had called and asked me what I was doing for Rosh Hashanah. I was like, “I don’t have plans,” and he said, “Don’t you know any Jews in Baltimore?” And I was like, “No.” I was on speaker phone, and I was standing with a couple of friends … and they all looked at me and said, “[Gabrielle], we’re all Jews.” It turns out that I have a whole lot more Jewish friends than I thought I did, and so we started a Rosh Hashanah tradition at that point. It obviously didn’t happen this past year, but we usually get together and do something every year.
Where did the idea for the collection drive come from?
My partner is from Chile, and earlier this year, his car was stolen. … Eventually, the car did come back, but when the car was stolen, he was in the middle of moving house, and all of his clothes and all of his tools, pretty much everything he owned, was in the car. So I put a call on Facebook and people donated a tremendous amount of tools. He was just blown away. He was like, “I’ve never been on the receiving end of something like this.” He felt incredibly humbled.
As we’ve gotten closer to Christmas — I don’t usually do Christmas, I’m Jewish — but he had said that he wanted to do something, and we have someone very close to us who used to be homeless, and he was sitting with us. … I said to the friend of ours, “What would have made a difference to you?” And he said, “A pair of socks and a cup of soup can change a guy’s day.”