Orphanage to honor local benefactor

Orphanage to honor local benefactor

New Jerseyans provide support for Odessa home

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

A Ukraine-based orphanage will honor a Highland Park resident whose pledge a decade ago resulted in the institution’s flourishing as a haven for Jewish children.

A fund-raising dinner on Wednesday, Dec. 7, at Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers will celebrate the partnership between the Tikva Children’s Home — a network of children’s residences and schools in Odessa — and the fashion giant Marc Ecko Enterprises and its founder Seth Gerszberg of Highland Park.

Gerszberg is president of MEE, a company he, Marc Ecko, and Ecko’s sister Marci Tapper launched in 1993 in a Lakewood garage. The company’s clothing line was a hit among rap stars and their fans and has since diversified into sportswear, luggage, and accessories.

Ten years ago, when the company was mired in debt, Gerszberg and Ecko took a trip to Odessa and pledged that if they turned a profit, the first $100,000 would go toward the orphanage.

As the company has grown, so has its investment in Tikva. Until 2009, Ecko Enterprises picked up all American expenses, from salary to supplies to rent. Executives and employees were encouraged to travel to Odessa and support the organization financially.

From that initial $100,000 contribution, MEE and its shareholders have donated $18 million to Tikva in the last 10 years, according to press liaison Rose Gerszberg, who is also Seth’s mother. MEE continues to cover basic expenses, with the exception of American salaries, now paid by Tikva.

Tikva is also a beneficiary agency of UJA MetroWest, based largely in Essex and Morris counties, thanks in large part to the support of two other New Jerseyans, former North Caldwell philanthropists Ed and Leah Frankel. Ed is Tikva’s board chair; its girls’ home is named for Leah, and earlier this year, the Frankels established a permanent endowment with the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest NJ.

In a conversation with NJJN, Gerszberg’s passion for the orphanage was palpable. As he looked forward to the next decade of partnership with Tikva, he said he has a benchmark in mind: for the children in the orphanage to become what he calls “responsible recipients” of care. The idea is that as they gain resources, both financial and otherwise, “they will take ownership of the future of Tikva and Ukrainian Jewry and that they will be responsible for the next generation to become more self-sustaining,” he said.

The current vision is a departure from the original goal of aliya, which Gerszberg and his partners now say is out of step with reality. “What is really happening is the rebirth of the Jewish community in Ukraine. While some still go to Israel, many stay in Odessa, and we want them to be active members of the Jewish community there.”

Gerszberg and his wife Emily have seven children — one of whom they adopted from Odessa five years ago.

Further solidifying its already strong ties with New Jersey, Tikva has named Rebecca Silverstein of West Caldwell as its director of development.

In her new role, Silverstein, 30, a social worker, is aiming to build on and diversify Tikva’s donor base and increase its visibility.

One of the biggest challenges, she said, is generating interest and “buzz” in an organization so far away. “I want to try to give people the feel, the taste, the touch of the orphanage in Odessa,” she said.

She hopes the Dec. 7 fund-raising dinner will bring in over $1 million; Tikva’s annual campaign runs between $7 million and $11 million.

Silverstein worked previously in clinical settings and as a case manager at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. She said she uses her social work background in her current position as well.

She visited Tikva shortly before accepting the job, which began in September. “When I visit the orphanage, there are needs I am able to notice as a social worker,” she said. “For example, there are many children with oppositional defiant disorder or post-traumatic stress syndrome. As a social worker, I can bring in programs I think the kids can benefit from through my conversations with donors.”

She also has a personal stake in the position.

“Growing up the daughter of a rabbi, I am passionate about Jewish causes,” she said. (Her father is Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell.) “I’m the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. My grandmother was from the Carpathian Mountains. To work with Jewish children in that part of the world is really interesting for me.”

Gerszberg said that what drives him and the other supporters is the ability “to have a sustained, dramatic impact on these children and their environment. It’s incredible to get to see such a tactile relationship between the work you do and the outcomes. We bring in children who don’t have a future and give them an outcome so different from what they otherwise would have.”

Yet one more Jerseyan, Ethan Keiser of Teaneck, an equities trader and Tikva supporter, will also be honored at the dinner.

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