Gabriel Pickus wears many hats: He is a percussionist, a martial artist, a healing touch practitioner, an organizer of Olam Ubuntu and the founder of the Baltimore Wisdom Project.
A Chicago native, Pickus lived on a kvutzah in Israel for nine months following high school, during which time he led coexistence outreach in developing Jewish communities and in Arab-Israel, Muslim- Israeli and Bedouin-Israeli villages as a culmination of his leadership training.
Pickus, 29, came to Baltimore in 2006 to attend Goucher College, where he studied religion with a focus on liberation theology, specifically black liberation theology. In his thesis, he explored the Exodus story and made connections to prove that it was used to fuel liberation sentiments in the antebellum South and pre-Civil War years.
He graduated in 2010 and has been doing outreach work with children ever since.
What is Olam Ubuntu?
Olam Ubuntu took the “olam” from tikkun olam as somewhat of a critique of tikkun olam projects as they have been manifest in recent years. Tikkun olam projects in the major Jewish institutions have tended to be one-offs that don’t build long-lasting relationships with the people who we are trying to help. So we borrowed the “olam” and put it with “ubuntu,” which means “I am because we are.” A world where “I am because we are” is what our vision of tikkun olam is, instead of fixing the world and therefore perpetuating a paradigm where it continues to be broken. For example, the nonprofit industrial complex here in Baltimore benefits from the suffering of the city in a certain regard. If they really wanted to fix the problems, they would work themselves out of a job. For some people, even on a subconscious level, they don’t want to actually fix it, because if the problem exists, they can continue to profit from researching it or trying to solve it or analyzing it.
A similar dynamic, whether consciously or unconsciously, has become manifest in the world of Jewish service learning and tikkun olam projects in general. For example, they send kids to New Orleans to build a house, but with all of the money they paid for airfare to send these kids, they could have hired someone in New Orleans to actually do the work. It’s an inefficient way to fix the world. It is not a service project, it’s a trip. Olam Ubuntu for us is just articulating a new vision of tikkun olam.
What does the program entail?
It is a Beth Am initiative for 12- to 15-year-olds; they have a nonprofit group called In For Of (IFO) the community, which does outreach in surrounding Reservoir Hill, which is predominantly African- American. I share teaching equally with Ras Tre Subira, the founder of Afrikan Youth Alchemy. The program provides a bridge to be able to do this community outreach work alongside an African- descended community that shares [Jewish] values and the experience of oppression in a certain regard. As responsible Jews living in Baltimore, it behooves us to pay attention to those who are bearing the brunt of these problems and actually work with them — not to come down and tell them what they need, but actually build relationships with them and work together for a better city.
We just completed our pilot program, which we will be starting again in the fall for a full school year. We focused on identity. We did projects and presented them to the community and then engaged the community in the conversation, so the kids were actually leading a workshop on racism for adults by the end, essentially.
We also had Sunday trips, the first of which was a tour of Baltimore’s housing history. We took them on the journey of Jewish flight across Baltimore starting down in Jonestown at the Jewish museum and working our way all the way up to Pikesville.
What lies ahead?
We envision expanding. I am in the middle of proposing a social justice teen fellowship with the Baltimore Jewish Council that would serve as a separate extension of the program for 15- to 18-year-olds. I am also in a band called J Pope and the HearNow. We are having an album release party on June 16 at the Creative Alliance. The album is called “Soul Searching.”