Who would guess that every hip-hop kid sporting the Ecko label inadvertently helps save a Jewish child half a world away in the former Soviet Union?
The founders of Ecko Unltd., a popular line of hip-hop apparel that features a distinctive rhinoceros, promised in 1998 to donate a portion of their profits to charity if they got out from under their considerable debt. In late 2000, Marc Ecko, Marci Tapper and Seth Gerzberg started fulfilling that promise after learning about Ukraine's Ohr Dessa Project and Tikva Children's Home.
The Ohr Dessa Project was established 11 years ago by Rabbi Shlomo Bakst to rebuild Kiev's Great Choral Synagogue, completed in 1997. During reconstruction, Bakst became aware of numerous homeless Jewish orphans in Odessa. The Tikva Children's Home was created in 1996 as a spin-off of the Ohr Dessa Project.
Today, Ecko Unltd., based in South River, N.J., underwrites all administrative costs for Tivka, which means "hope" in Hebrew.
"Marc [Ecko] and his business partners have had a major influence on Tikva," said Emily Lehrmann, Tikva's director of operations. "They have enabled us to more than double the number of children we are able to help."
Ecko also draws other U.S. supporters to Tikva, including Sandra and Leonard Piontak, of Corona del Mar, who became Tikva's largest contributors.
On their last fundraising mission to Odessa in May, Ecko and friends raised over $700,000 for Tikva, bringing the total amount raised this year to $2.5 million. The effort is part of a larger capital campaign (with a goal of $6.5 million) that will support the construction of a new girls' high school, dormitory and infants' home, set to open in the fall of 2006. The Piontaks are Tikva trustees.
Sandra Piontak got involved with Tikva a year ago at the suggestion of Effy Zinkin, general counsel for Ecko Unltd. "'Just wait until you see these kids,' he told me," Piontak said. "He was right."
The Piontaks and their son Adam took an 11-hour flight to Budapest, Hungary and from there they flew to Odessa. After touring the city and visiting many places where Jewish children live -- some in train stations by the tracks, some small one-room houses crammed full with people -- the group of executives went to the children's home.
"The great thing about Tikva is that you can actually see, touch and smell the difference that you're making in the children's lives," Sandra Piontak said.
Tikva provides food, shelter and schooling for 180 girls and boys and educates an additional 500 Jewish children in the greater Odessa area. All children attending Tikva's schools receive two hot meals a day.
Since her first trip last year, Piontak says the children recognize her and come running up, offering a wave of affection. On this last trip in May, Piontak visited three brothers, aged 8 months, 2 and 4 years old. Atur, the oldest, pulled up a chair for her to join them in the common room. Older children helped translate.
"The kids are just adorable," Piontak said. "You fall in love with them right away."
The younger ones are very fond of bubbles, she said. Ecko's influence can be seen in the older children's taste in music -- they rave about Eminem and Beyoncé.
In addition to Atur's two younger brothers, he has 11 cousins living in Tikva's home with him. This is often the case, according to Lehrmann. Tikva's staff includes researchers, who sift through old Soviet records -- birth certificates, passports, etc. -- to confirm a child's true Jewish heritage and to find relatives of children that have come through Tikva's doors.
The organization also provides other services to the greater Jewish community, including a daily "meals on wheels" program for the elderly and a day care center for working parents. The group is the largest and most well-respected group seeking to rebuild the Jewish community in Odessa.
After hearing horror stories about Jewish survival, most especially the Holocaust, Piontak feels compelled to give something back.
"Meeting these children and spending time with them has been the most moving experience of my life," she said.
For more information about Tikva, visit www.tikvaodessa.org or call (562) 296-1055.